Wednesday, May 14, 2008

China's Sorrow Continues UPDATE: Concerns About Dam Failures

The death toll from the massive 7.9 quake in Sichuan continues rising, as more than 15,000 have been reported dead, with several times that number still buried in the rubble.

The Chinese military has finally made it into the heart of the affected area and begun relief and recovery operations. Many of those who survived were badly injured, which means that the longer that it takes for relief efforts to reach them, the more likely people will die of their injuries.
The soldiers who reached Wenchuan County, the epicenter of the 7.9-magnitude quake that struck China on Monday, began ferrying survivors across rivers on plastic skiffs. But in the first township that the soldiers reached, Yingxiu, only 2,300 of 10,000 residents could be confirmed alive, according to Xinhua, the state news agency.

A poor farming region that is home to a famous panda reserve, Wenchuan is believed to be one of the worst-hit areas.

“There is an urgent need for medical staff, medicine, food and drinking water,” said He Biao, the deputy secretary-general of the Aba prefectural government, which includes Wenchuan.

The fact that aid was finally able to reach Wenchuan was a minor triumph in the aftermath of the worst earthquake to hit China in more than 30 years. Until Wednesday, Wenchuan had been completely cut off from the outside world, and the longer it remained completely isolated, the more people would suffer and ultimately die. Half of the survivors had severe injuries, Chinese officials said.

But the threat of further earthquakes and aftershocks remained high across the entire region. A small tremor could be felt here in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan Province, around 11 a.m. Wednesday. Hours later, workers in at least one high-rise hotel asked guests to move to lower floors because of a heightened earthquake alert.
While hope grows dim for many still trapped in the rubble, there was one bright spot as a pregnant woman trapped in the rubble for 50 hours was pulled alive:
Some rare moments of good news emerged on Wednesday. A woman who was eight-months pregnant and trapped in rubble for 50 hours was pulled to safety in the town of Dujiangyan, The Associated Press reported. Another woman was also rescued shortly afterward.
MSNBC reports that the death toll is likely far higher than the figures bandied about thus far - that 26,000 remain buried in the rubble and another 14,000 remain unaccounted for. That's on top of the nearly 15,000 people killed according to official tallies.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao continues his tour of the region, and met with the pregnant woman:
Premier Wen Jiabao looked over her wounds, part of his highly publicized tour of the disaster area aimed at reassuring the public about the government's response and to show the world that the country is ready to host the Beijing Olympics in August.

Wednesday's leg of the Olympic torch relay in the southeastern city of Ruijin began with a minute of silence.

Wen said some 100,000 troops and police had been dispatched to the disaster zone. He also visited a school Wednesday in Beichuan where two classroom buildings collapsed in the earthquake, including a school with 2,000 students that state TV said sustained "heavy casualties."
This already dangerous situation might become even more so - a dam upstream from Dujiangyan has serious structural problems and the Chinese government has rushed 2,000 troops to try and deal with the situation. They're trying to reduce the level of the reservoir behind it to prevent a breach or collapse. The Chinese authorities aren't exactly doing their best to inform those downstream by the looks of it though:
The state-run news agency Xinhua said that 2,000 troops had been sent to work on the Zipingku Dam in Sichuan province.

Speaking from Dujiangyan, Sky's China correspondent Peter Sharp said many local people seemed unaware of the threat.

"It (the dam) is only five kilometres away, we are downstream of it," he said.

"We understand that some of the People's Liberation Army troops that are deployed here helping with the rescue operation... 2,000 of them [have been moved] upriver to seal some serious cracks in the dam wall."
There's a solitary report that suggests damage to the Three Gorges Dam, but no corroboration. If that dam complex were to fail, tens of millions of people along the Yangtze River could be killed by the wall of water rushing downstream.

Treehugger posted a related report on the situation with the dams yesterday - noting that there was serious concern about the hydroelectric infrastructure in the region and that there were concerns about dams above Dujiangyan.

CNN reports that the situation at the dam is pretty grim - the hydroelectric station and related structures are in ruins and partly sunk. That suggests that water is seeping through the structures and it could be only a matter of time before a full-scale breach occurs. 655,000 people live in Dujiangyan.

MSNBC reports that hundreds of dams were damaged:
The National Development Reform Commission, China's top economic planning body, said on its Web site Wednesday that 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. It did not give any other details or say if Zipingpu was one of the dams.
With rains expected in the region, structural problems at the dams will be further complicated as the problems cascade from dams upstream to those downstream.

There are a series of dams above Dujiangyan, including the historic water works depicted here:

View Larger Map

It's hard to tell which of these dams is the one that causes the most concern for officials. There is another dam just upstream that holds back a considerable reservoir, which could be the dam in question. If anyone else has any more information, please provide them in the comments.

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