did china’s dams trigger the sichuan earthquake?

A collapsed building in Dujiangyan, close to the epicentre of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

China’s massive system of hydroelectric dams and water distribution has come under fire once again. Right after the devastating Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008, in which over 70,000 people lost their lives, officials rushed to deny that the massive Three Gorges Dam complex hundreds of kilometres downstream could have played any role in triggering the natural disaster.

Now officials are working hard to  play down a call by Fan Xiao, Chief Engineer of the Regional Geology Investigation Team of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, for scientists to investigate whether the Zipingpu dam project, located upstream of the quake area, may have triggered the earthquake.

Fan’s call comes in the wake of a paper by Christian Klose at Columbia University which theorized how abnormal surface stresses caused by the Zipingpu dam system may have triggered the massive earthquake. Klose’s hypothesis also matches work conducted by Lei Xinglin a geologist with the China Earthquake Administration in Beijing.

According to a recent article in Science magazine, Fan says that although the hypothesis that the dam triggered the earthquake as yet remains unproven, ‘We should readjust our existing plans and take a more cautious attitude when planning projects.” 

He doubts, however, that his voice will be heard:

I am pessimistic that many of these large-scale constructions will be canceled, because of the strong economic interests that benefit hydropower developers and local governments.

As Judith Shapiro documents in her book Mao’s War Against Nature, modern China has a history of ignoring the voices of scientists, with tremendous costs to human life and to the natural environment. Politics and economics are usually cited as the reasons why science’s voice goes unheard, but culture and ideology also plays an important role.

Indeed, the Zipingpu hydro project was almost never completed as a result of protests from the residents of Dujiangyan, a town downstream from Zipingpu. They called for Zipingpu to be abandoned because Dujiangyan, a UNESCO world heritage site, symbolized an entirely different view of human relationship with nature. The Dujiangyan irrigation system  did not block the flow of the Min river with a dam but instead channeled the waters through the fields to irrigate the fertile Sichuan basin. The Zipingpu dam system threatened the viability of Dujiangyan to continue to function as it has done for over two thousand years. 

Zipingpu and Dujiangyan represent two competing ideals of the human relationship with water. The first is based on the idea of containing water’s power behind dams, the second is based on the idea of working with the power of water to bring vitality to the earth. The residents of Dujiangyan regarded their irrigation system as an national treasure of Chinese culture, and built a Daoist temple on the site to honour the architect, Li Bin. Daoism, China’s indigenous religion, celebrates the power of water and values its fluid and life-giving properties. 

The Daoist classic The Way and its Power views says:

Highest good is like water. Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures without contending with them and settles where none would like to be, it comes close to the Way.

The protests of the people of Dujiangyan were ignored, and with tragic consequences. Zipingpu was completed, and now it seems it may even have played a role in their deaths.

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