China: Troops Rush to Plug Dam Cracks

Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Originally published on Yahoo News

DUJIANGYAN, China - Hundreds of dams around the epicenter of China's earthquake have been damaged and Chinese troops scrambled Wednesday to plug cracks and open sluices to prevent flooding of already devastated communities.

The National Development Reform Commission, China's top economic planning body, said the earthquake had damaged 391 dams. It said two of the dams were large ones, 28 were medium-sized and the rest were small ones.

The official Xinhua News Agency said 2,000 troops were sent to work on the Zipingpu dam, which lies on about 6 miles up the Min river from the badly damaged city of Dujiangyan in Sichuan province.

Xinhua quoted the Ministry of Water Resources Wednesday as urging protection of the Zipingpu reservoir, saying Dujiangyan would be "swamped" if major problems emerged at the dam.

The ministry had set up an emergency command center at the dam "to discharge the reservoir's rising waters and guarantee that the damage posed no threat to Dujiangyan and the neighboring Chengdu Plain," Xinhua said.

By late Wednesday, the government pronounced the dam safe.

"Experts from the Ministry of Water Resources today had a complete and concrete examination on the key sections of the dam," CCTV said, reading a statement also posted on the Sichuan government Web site. "After that, the expert group said the structure was stable and safe."

However, the sudden release of water could also damage the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, a World Heritage Site, which is just a few miles downstream from Zipingpu, said Aviva Imhoff, campaign director for the International Rivers Network, an activist group that seeks to protect rivers.

"The issue here is the rate at which they're draining the reservoir and the potential impacts downstream," Imhoff said.

He Biao, the director of the Aba Disaster Relief headquarters in northern Sichuan, said there were also concerns over dams closer to Wenchuan, the epicenter which lies about 30 miles northwest of Dujiangyan.

"The most dangerous problems are several reservoirs near Wenchuan," he said, according to a transcript on the CCTV Web site.

He said problems at the Tulong Reservoir on the Min River could lead to collapse.

"If that happens, it would affect several power plants below and be extremely dangerous," he said.

Scores of rivers snake through mountainous Tibetan plateau before descending into the fertile Sichuan basin where they provide critical irrigation. Most have dams along them to help regulate seasonal floods and to provide much needed power.

Over the past few decades, China has seen a frenzy of dam building aimed at meeting soaring demand for power to fuel China's booming industries.

Hydroelectric power is viewed as a relatively clean alternative to the heavily polluting coal-fired plants that are the country's mainstay source of energy.

The Zipingpu facility was put into service in 2006 but not without opposition.

A campaign was launched in 2001 to protest funding for Zipingpu because of its close proximity to a fault line, said Imhoff of the International Rivers Network.

The group obtained transcripts of an internal government meeting in 2000 where seismologists warned officials of the dangers of constructing the dam and the potential for it to be damaged in an earthquake, she said.

"The government ignored the warnings and now we're seeing the results," Imhoff said.

The Three Gorges dam, the world's largest, lies about 350 miles to the east of the epicenter but the information office of State Council Three Gorges Construction Committee said earlier this week that there was no damage to the massive structure.