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Experts Keep Close Eye on Quake-Damaged Dams


We're going to check up this morning on the effort to prevent another disaster in southwestern China. The region already suffered a massive earthquake. Now, NPR's Melissa Block is tracking the effort to preserve the region's many dams. And Melissa, how serious is this situation?

MELISSA BLOCK: Well, you hear sort of mixed language coming from officials here. There was a news conference yesterday where they said unless there are strong aftershocks, there won't be problems. The dams are stable for the moment.

I don't know whether that's reassuring or not. I have seen one of these huge dams, it's part of a massive hydropower project just up from the city of Du Jiang Yan. It's on the Min River. I think the dam is something like 500-feet high. There were cracks in that dam. There were some structural problems. Engineers have been there working on it. They say the dam is safe. But imagine, Steve, the reservoir there has a capacity of 1.1 billion cubic meters of water.

If there were a catastrophic failure of that dam, that water would flood the city of Du Jiang Yan, which has already been completely devastated by the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people in the street. You can imagine what effect that would have. It would be just a second catastrophe on top of what these people have already seen.

INSKEEP: What's that dam made of?

BLOCK: It is, I believe, rock-filled concrete. I couldn't tell you exactly what the structure is. Engineers say it is safe. I've heard conflicting accounts of whether it's designed to withstand an earthquake of this magnitude, but it is standing, and officials seem to have no concern about it at this point.

But you have to imagine that the people living along these rivers - and it's not just this one dam. This is the biggest one, but there are many, many, I think 30 along the Min River and the tributaries, and all of them are being monitored 24/7, officials say, because there is so much concern about them.

They've also been releasing water from the reservoirs in a controlled way to try to reduce pressure on these dams so that there would not be, hopefully, any sort of catastrophic failure.

INSKEEP: Must be strange to be in this region where people have to wonder if the dams will kill them when they're in an area where water projects of this kind actually sustain life.

BLOCK: Historically, yeah. And this city we've been talking about, Du Jiang Yan, is home to an ancient irrigation system. It's considered an engineering masterpiece, and it's considered the thing that has made this province, Sichuan, become a breadbasket for much of China.

I went to Du Jiang about a month ago, and I attended a ceremonial water-releasing pageant.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: (unintelligible) actors and music and gongs and horses. And at the end, they strike a little dam, and water flows out of a reservoir with a sacrificial fake sheep and a pig floating through - very bizarre coincidence that I was there for a water-releasing ceremony just weeks ago, and now, of course, water being released in a much more urgent manner and for real - out of real engineering concerns.

INSKEEP: Well, do some people then look up at these dams and begin to wonder if perhaps they've fiddled with nature just a little bit too much?

BLOCK: Yeah, and there's been that concern all along. There is sort of a growing environmental sense, which is really fascinating, in China right now. A lot of people - and not just activists, but common people - who've been very concerned about dams on any number of levels, environmental safety, but also consider that people who lived where these dams and reservoirs have been built, uprooted by the millions across China as these huge hydropower projects go in to feed China's thirst for energy, which is growing all the time.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Melissa Block. She's co-host of NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. She is in southwest China, where she's been since the day of the earthquake, and she's going to report more no water concerns on today's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Melissa, Thanks very much.

BLOCK: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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