Quake shadows dam ambitions

China’s deadly earthquake last month appears to have shifted more than just tectonic plates in the country’s picturesque Sichuan province. This year’s May 12 temblor has given a boost to China’s green lobby that has been calling for a review of Beijing’s zealous dam-building programme and may tilt the balance of public opinion in favour of such appeals.

When the quake struck, it came in an area famous for ancient hydrological works. Sichuan is the homeland of Da Yu, the legendary Chinese emperor who won his right to the throne in twenty-first century BC by controlling the floods. Instead of building dikes as others before him did, Yu dredged out river channels to release the torrential waters. He then directed the water to irrigate distant farm lands.

Twenty centuries later, Yu’s flood controlling technique was immortalised in the hydraulic project of Dujiangyan. The ancient system — operational now for the past 2,000 years — has made the city of the same name a magnet for tourists and has won it recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While the city of Dujiangyan was almost entirely destroyed by the magnitude eight earthquake, the old hydraulic system located only 10 km from the epicenter, survived the temblor with little damage. The sa-me cannot be said about the cluster of 6,000 reservoirs and dams that local experts estimate have been built on the rivers of Sichuan.

“Such a strong earthquake would have an enormous influence on the dams in the whole area,” says David Simpson, a United States seismologist with the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS). “You are certain to have concerns if you build many dams in mountainous areas as is the case in Sichuan”.

In the wake of the quake, which has claimed nearly 70,000 lives, the rush and struggle to assess the damage done to Sichuan’s hydropower works were featured less prominently by the media than the frenzy of rescue operations. But as provincial authorities brace for the surge of seasonal floods, the danger of dams bursting and creating a much bigger havoc than the earthquake has prompted Chinese experts and activists to raise their voices.

An open letter issued by a group of 40 academics and environmentalists on June 19 warned of more devastation if environmental and geological risks of damaged dams are disregarded. “The quake has highlighted the urgency to make a thorough investigation of damage to the dams, which would embrace another severe test of imminent floods,” the petition said.

An official survey by the Ministry of Water Resources last month revealed that 2,380 reservoirs and dams all over the country sustained damage from the quake. Some 69 were assessed to be on the verge of collapse. But experts say this is only the tip of the iceberg. In less than 60 years since the founding of communist China, the country managed to build some 87,000 reservoirs and dams.

The country’s leadership is not stopping. There are more than 30 large dams on the drawing boards of Chinese engineers awaiting approval and completion as the country scrambles to feed its energy-starved economy. Initial official statements after the quake indicated little waver from Beijing’s determination to press on with intensive hydropower development in the area. — IPS