The dam breach caused more than 85,000 people to die instantly.
Date: Feb 17 2019
By: Justin Higginbottom
Workers stood along the top of Banqiao Dam, some 150 feet above the valley’s floor, desperately trying to repair its crest as rain from Typhoon Nina fell for a third straight day. After battering Taiwan, the storm had moved inland where it was expected to dissipate, but Nina turned north instead, reaching the Huai River basin on Aug. 5, 1975, where a cold front blocked its progression. Parked in place, the typhoon generated more than a year’s worth of rain in 24 hours.
By the time night fell on Aug. 8, as many as 65 area dams had collapsed. But despite the fact that water levels at the Banqiao Dam had far exceeded a safe capacity, and a number of sluice gates for controlling water flow were clogged with silt, authorities felt confident they’d skirt disaster. After all, the Soviet-designed dam had been built to survive a typhoon — a once-every-1,000-year occurrence that could dump 11 inches of rain per day. Unfortunately, Typhoon Nina would prove to be a once-every-2,000-year storm, bearing down with enough force to cause the world’s deadliest infrastructure failure ever.
Chen Xing, one of China’s foremost hydrologists, had followed the construction of Banqiao in 1952 with concern. Chairman Mao Zedong, eager to modernize the country, ordered hundreds of dams built, which put people to work, provided electricity and tamed rivers as part of his brutal Great Leap Forward. After swimming across the Yangtze River in 1958, Zedong penned a poem about his obsession with dams: “Great plans are being made/ Walls of stone will stand upstream to the west …The mountain goddess if she is still there/ Will marvel at a world so changed.” Decades later, ignoring warnings from scientists and environmentalists, the Chinese government initiated construction of the Three Gorges Dam — the world’s largest power station — on the Yangtze.