Damaged Dam Raises Flood Fears for Dujiangyan

Chinese soldiers and doctors wait to rescue earthquake survivors at the Zipingpu dam. i i

Chinese soldiers and doctors wait to rescue earthquake survivors at the Zipingpu dam on May 15, 2008, in Sichuan province. The dam, near the hard-hit city of Dujiangyan, was damaged by the quake, causing serious cracks, and troops were sent to stabilize it. China Photos/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption China Photos/Getty Images
Chinese soldiers and doctors wait to rescue earthquake survivors at the Zipingpu dam.

Chinese soldiers and doctors wait to rescue earthquake survivors at the Zipingpu dam on May 15, 2008, in Sichuan province. The dam, near the hard-hit city of Dujiangyan, was damaged by the quake, causing serious cracks, and troops were sent to stabilize it.

China Photos/Getty Images
Officials released water from the Zipingpu dam reservoir after the dam sustained earthquake damage. i i

Officials released water from the Zipingpu dam's reservoir to ease pressure after the hydroelectric dam sustained damage in the May 12 earthquake. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Officials released water from the Zipingpu dam reservoir after the dam sustained earthquake damage.

Officials released water from the Zipingpu dam's reservoir to ease pressure after the hydroelectric dam sustained damage in the May 12 earthquake.

Andrea Hsu/NPR
Dujiangyan irrigation system i i

Third century B.C. Chengdu governor Li Bing is credited with helping the Sichuan province flourish by building the Dujiangyan irrigation system, completed in 256 B.C. This photo was taken during a festival honoring Li in April, before the earthquake hit. Melissa Block/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Block/NPR
Dujiangyan irrigation system

Third century B.C. Chengdu governor Li Bing is credited with helping the Sichuan province flourish by building the Dujiangyan irrigation system, completed in 256 B.C. This photo was taken during a festival honoring Li in April, before the earthquake hit.

Melissa Block/NPR

Reporter's Notebook

Water-releasing festival i i

An annual water-releasing festival celebrates Li Bing for figuring out how to control the Min River with an irrigation system called Dujiangyan. This photo also was taken during the April festival. Andrea Hsu/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu/NPR
Water-releasing festival

An annual water-releasing festival celebrates Li Bing for figuring out how to control the Min River with an irrigation system called Dujiangyan. This photo also was taken during the April festival.

Andrea Hsu/NPR

Long before the May 12 earthquake in China, All Things Considered had been planning a week's worth of broadcasts from Chengdu — stories about the rapid change in southwestern China and new attitudes and expectations. The disaster has caused some stories to be rethought. But others, like this one, have become even more timely.

When I was in China reporting a month ago, I came here, to the city of Dujiangyan in Sichuan province. I wanted to do a story about rivers and who controls them.

Now, of course, that story has completely changed.

Dujiangyan is famous for its ancient irrigation system, which was built about 2,300 years ago.

Now, of course, it's known as a city badly destroyed by the earthquake, where many, many people have been killed.

Standing at the entrance to the irrigation system, you hear the Min River rushing quickly by, much quicker than it was a month ago.

There's a huge hydropower dam upstream — and there is concern about its structural integrity since the earthquake. So officials have been releasing water to decrease pressure on the dam.

City 'Would Be Swamped'

The Zipingpu dam, more than 500 feet high, is close to the earthquake's epicenter. China's Water Resources Ministry says the dam sustained a range of damage.

One of its abutments sank 10 centimeters (4 inches). The force of the earthquake opened cracks in the dam wall. But, officials say, Zipingpu remains structurally stable and safe.

Still, here's an ominous thought: The reservoir at Zipingpu can hold up to 1.1 billion cubic meters of water. The Water Resources Ministry says the city of Dujiangyan, with a population of more than 600,000 people, "would be swamped" if the dam failed.

Environmental sciences professor Ai Nanshan says that if the dam fails, "the destruction would be even greater than that caused by the earthquake.

"Dujiangyan would be hit first," he says. "You can imagine water levels as high as two-story buildings within 10 minutes. Everything would be gone. There would be no time to rescue anyone."

And a couple of hours later, those waters could reach the provincial capital of Chengdu.

That explains the urgency behind the controlled release of water from the dam's reservoir.

A Visionary Engineer

Looking back, it seems a bizarre coincidence that when I first visited Dujiangyan in April, there was a water-releasing ceremony — a happy occasion.

It was an over-the-top spectacle with thousands of actors and dancers dressed as ancient warriors and princesses. The annual event honors a visionary engineer named Li Bing.

In the third century B.C., Li designed Dujiangyan's legendary irrigation system, which is now a major tourist attraction.

The earthquake damaged the water system, though it is reported to be safe.

About 2,300 years ago, Li figured out a way to control the unpredictable, destructive Min River. He built a massive dike and irrigation system, channeling through a mountain and splitting the river in two.

His engineering masterpiece put an end to constant flooding, drought and famine in Sichuan province.

Here's why Li is still celebrated in grand style, after more than two millennia: People here will tell you that the Dujiangyan irrigation system transformed Sichuan into a powerhouse.

Without it, people say, Sichuan would never have flourished into the breadbasket it is now — it's known as "the land of plenty."

And great poets and writers arose from Sichuan. The Taoist religion sprang into being on a mountain overlooking the Min.

Dams Pose Contradiction for China

Li might be glorified for transforming a river, but massive water-control projects have a bad name these days. And last week's earthquake highlights the concern.

There are 30 dams all along the Min River and its tributaries upstream from Dujiangyan. Sixteen of them sustained significant damage.

On Monday, government officials said the dams "have to be dealt with carefully and quickly or there could be more risk."

They say they've sent in experts to monitor the structures 24 hours a day.

I asked Professor Ai, who is chairman of an environmental activist group called the Chengdu Urban Rivers Association, if he worried about the dams right after the earthquake hit.

"To be honest, I did worry," he says, "But I didn't speak out. I didn't want to cause a panic."

Now he says he feels reassured that the government is at least monitoring the dams' safety.

Ai's group, CURA, has been active in opposing the huge hydropower projects built all over southwestern China to feed the country's ever-rising demand for energy. More and more, he says, even before the earthquake, the Chinese people had been saying no to dams, with vocal public protests.

"Here's the contradiction: The country needs power for development," Ai says. "You open a map of China and you see that almost all of its rivers have been dammed. There are almost no rivers that flow naturally.

"Of course, a certain number of dams make sense," he says. "But all in all, too many dams have been built. So these days the voice of opposition to dams is strong."

The Chinese people don't benefit from building dams, Ai says. They're the ones uprooted from their homes by the millions. It's the developers who profit, he says, including a company run by the son of former Premier Li Peng.

"They're behind most of the hydropower projects in southwestern China," Ai says. "They are the ones who benefit the most.

"Most of the money is going to the developers and to local governments," he says. "Officials at all levels — starting with the village — are making money off this. Some of it is mismanagement, and some of it is just corruption."

Ai says the earthquake makes it even more urgent to reassess the wisdom of building so many dams.

And he adds one final thought to the mix, in this new appraisal of dams, and rivers, and who controls them.

Right after the earthquake, Ai says, the Chinese army was trying to reach people to rescue them, but the roads were blocked. If there weren't so many dams, more soldiers could have gone by boat. But the dams were in the way.

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