The Calamity of an Earthquake

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Science News 6 November 2009

Reported by: Yan Yan

    With years of media focus on the construction of a dam on the Nujiang River (怒江), an earthquake drew public attention somewhere else.

    After the earthquake on May 12, 2008, as the country grieved, those concerned with dams cast their eyes on the Zipingpu Dam. This dam was located seventeen kilometers away from Wenchuan, a county hit hard by the calamity.

    Before the earthquake, it had been reported that the Zipingpu Dam (紫坪铺水库大坝) on the Minjiang River (岷江) would be vulnerable to earthquakes and the result could be unimaginable if any earthquake similar to the Songpan earthquake of 1976 were to occur. After the earthquake, officials who arrived at the dam found the outside of the dam in a mess and immediately reported the potential danger of the dam to the higher authorities. The news was immediately publicized by the media, attracting the attention of those both at home and abroad who were opposed to dam construction. However, the next day, water conservancy experts arrived to inspect the site, and declared the structure of the Zipingpu Dam to be safe and stable. Without delay, they officially announced this news to the public.  

   The Zipingpu Dam was left unharmed by the violent shakes of the earthquake, and played an important role in coping with the aftermath of the quake. On May 17, the Zipingpu power station recovered and begun to generate electricity, facilitating the use of this power for earthquake relief. Also, the Zipingpu Reservoir provided a wide water surface, which guaranteed a dependable waterway, at a time when many highways had been rendered impassable by landslides and the weather conditions were unfavorable for flight.   

   Certain media sources have begun to view the relationship between the earthquake and the dam as one more than simply a matter of environmental protection. In turn, these sources have begun to value the opinions of experts. For example, China’s Southern Weekly reprinted an article titled “I am not convinced that the Zipingpu dam caused the Sichuan quake,” originally published by Professor Ji Shaocheng of Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal on the website New Threads.

   “The media should inform the public of the communities and environmental factors that will be affected by the reconstruction project of Dujiangyan Dam. Of course, the complexity of this issue needs to be considered, that is, any single project should be integrated with the local economy and society,” said Wang Yongchen, “Just as a quotation I once cited in an article goes, ‘You cannot ask the locals to protect the environment when they are still suffering from extreme poverty.’ Since the central government wants an ecologically friendly society, it should give more money to local governments and differentiate more functional districts, such as the environmental protection district which forbids further environmental exploitation.”

     Experts in water conservancy, hydroelectricity, and other fields, faced with the media’s long-time opposition to dam construction, are starting to reflect on their own shortcomings. “The public’s scientific knowledge is lacking, but the voices of experts are not being heard,” Jia Jinsheng, chair of the International Commission of Large Dams (ICOLD) (国际大坝委员会), told Science News.

     In the meantime, although dissenting voices have delayed dam construction and raised migrant issues, experts admit that critical comments also have some positive effect. As expressed by Gao Jizhang, former director of China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research (中国水利水电科学研究院 ), “These voices of opposition are also of help to us. They remind us to think about hydropower research in a comprehensive manner.”

    “No organizations in the world truly oppose dam construction. Either due to a keenness to maintain the original ecological system or due to personal interest and profit, they are opposed to the project,” a hydropower expert who knew much about the issue explained to Science News.

Translator: Tong Jun
Proofreader: Alison Flamm