Tragedy Strikes at China’s Sanmenxia Dam

China's Sanmenxia Dam.

On January 22, 2023, the Sanmenxia Dam in Henan Province, known as the first dam on the Yellow River, unexpectedly released water, causing the river's water level to surge. (Image: via Wikipedia)

On January 22, 2023, the Sanmenxia Dam in Henan Province, known as the first dam on the Yellow River, unexpectedly released water, causing the river’s water level to surge. At the time, downstream from the dam, the river had almost dried up, and many people were taking photos by the shallow banks of the river.

However, some people in the middle of the river could not evacuate in time and were swept away by the sudden deluge of water.

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Witnesses reported that the river rose by about 1.8 meters in six minutes. As of 7 a.m. on January 23, officials said 10 people were rescued from drowning, with six having already returned home. Two were being treated in the hospital for non-life-threatening injuries, and two died after emergency resuscitation efforts.

After an overnight search, there are still seven people missing. Verification, investigation, and rescue procedures are still underway.

Please watch this video account of China’s Sanmenxia Dam.

Netizens say that the sudden release of water without warning is, without a doubt, a manmade disaster! It’s outrageous that such a tragedy happened on the first day of the Lunar New Year! 

According to Red Star News, on January 23, witnesses reported that the incident occurred downstream of the Yellow River, about one to two kilometers from the river’s scenic area and around 40 kilometers from the Sanmenxia Dam.

The area is a popular tourist attraction that the local government of Sanmenxia developed. Due to the shallow and small sandy beaches, the locals refer to the area as the second Maldives. As it was the first day of the Lunar New Year, with sunny weather, many people were there enjoying themselves.

Videos online show people taking photos of rocks in the river when water suddenly rushes in. Many became trapped, struggled, and lost strength in the water; some used branches for help, and people on shore rescued some, but others were swept away.

A couple was stuck on a rock in the middle of the river and could not evacuate. Although many people on the shore watched in anxiety, nothing could be done as they were also swept away.

A witness interviewed by Red Star News stated that he was about 1.5 kilometers downstream of the Sanmenxia Dam, some distance from where the incident happened. He was familiar with the area and often visited the Yellow River. He had gone downstream while his parents were waiting for him on the shore, and he was walking through the river at around 4:10 p.m.

However, he noticed that the river was starting to rise five minutes later, and he had no way to get back. So he prepared to remove his shoes and walk back through the water. “In about 6 minutes, the water had risen above 1.8 meters. Since I’m only 1.75 meters tall, I was completely submerged,” he said.

He introduced himself as a 20-year-old sports student with a good physique. However, the strong water current constantly swept him downstream despite his physical strength. It took him over 15 minutes to swim 50 meters back to the shore, during which he injured his leg.

A netizen, who claims to be a local, posted that the government should take measures to prevent accidents at the popular tourist spot by the river, such as setting up barriers to prevent people from going in the middle of the river and monitoring downstream before releasing water.

The netizen noted that people get washed away yearly, and this year has seen the highest number of casualties.

However, officials from the Sanmenxia Dam denied releasing water, stating that they were only following instructions from provincial authorities. They said that the sudden increase in water level was not a release of water but part of normal operations, which happen daily.

However, Internet users had different opinions on Weibo, with many disagreeing with the official statement.

“Before releasing the water, they should use drones to monitor the area. If they find people in the area, they should broadcast a notice to reduce the harm caused.

“An accident caused by an artificial release of water, isn’t it regrettable? Shouldn’t anyone be held responsible? Although it is not a tourist spot, since people are visiting, there should be safety measures at the very least. Is it not necessary to give warnings before releasing water?”

The Sanmenxia Dam is also known as the Sanmenxia Reservoir. It was the first significant water control project of the new People’s Republic of China. However, the Yellow River dam, built during the Communist Party’s Great Leap Forward, was a disaster from the day it was completed in April 1961.

It can be regarded as one of the most unsuccessful projects in the history of the world’s reservoirs. 

The Yellow River is the second-largest river in China and the most important source of Chinese civilization. It is known as the Yellow River because of the large amount of sediment it carries through the Loess Plateau region, giving the water a muddy yellow color all year round.

Why was the Sanmenxia Dam built?

In ancient times, there was a saying that “when the Yellow River clears, saints would appear,” giving a metaphor that this is a rare occurrence. 

The Yellow River is the second-largest river in China and the most important source of Chinese civilization.
The Yellow River is the second-largest river in China and the most important source of Chinese civilization. (Image: via Wikipedia)

In 1949, after the Communist Party seized power in China, Mao Zedong, who claimed to be a materialist, wanted to create the image of the “Yellow River clearing” to appear as a saint. So officials and so-called experts attempted to build the Sanmenxia Dam to stop the sediment flow into the river to prove the greatness and correctness of the Communist Party and to prove that “a saint emerged” during Mao’s time. 

In 1954, the Chinese Communist authorities entrusted the Sanmenxia Dam’s design upstream of the Yellow River to Soviet experts. The overall idea of the design was to build a dam of 360 meters in height to intercept the flow of water and store sand, allowing clear water to exit the reservoir and function as a power generator.

However, due to a lack of in-depth practical understanding of the Yellow River and erroneous information provided by the Communist Party at the time, the designers believed that the dam would be able to achieve the maximum effect of storing sediments. With the sediments being trapped, the Sanmenxia Dam would release clear water downstream of the Yellow River and eventually accomplish a clear river.

This design, which ignored reality and deviated from the actual situation of the Yellow River, was received with applause by authorities involved in the Communist Party’s Yellow River Planning Committee.

However, one true expert, Huang Wanli, still opposed the dam’s construction. He argued that after the completion of the Sanmenxia Dam, the Yellow River would be silted upstream in areas like Tongguan, preventing electricity generation and flooding the area.

He pointed out that “a clear Yellow River” is only an imaginary political idea, which is scientifically impossible to achieve. Not to mention that, by natural law, even if clear water flowed from the reservoir with force more potent than the turbid water carrying sediment, it would violently scour the riverbed, inevitably collapsing a large area of the riverbed and thus causing the clear water to turn back into turbid water. 

A simple question is: In the past, the Yellow River washed 1.6 billion tons of sediment from the Loess Plateau downstream into the ocean yearly. Since the dam was built, the deposits would no longer be washed downstream, so where would they go? Aren’t they all trapped inside the barrier?

At 1.6 billion tons a year, how giant should the Sanmenxia Dam be to withstand such a situation continuing for several years? Moreover, the Yellow River cannot be cleared. Therefore, working against the laws of nature will undoubtedly lead to disaster! 

Sure enough, disaster came with a vengeance within just a few years.

In 1960, only a year and a half after the completion of the Sanmenxia Dam, Huang Wanli’s warning that “the downstream flood hazards would move upstream, and the clear water coming out of the dam would endanger the downstream embankments” was proven true.

In October 1961, before the dam reached its average water level, a “barrage of sand” formed at the Wei River estuary, the Yellow River’s upstreams. It flooded over 250,000 acres of arable land, stranding 5,000 people in Wei River and Chao Yi beach. 

From that year onward, the Yellow River and Wei River areas above Tongguan became heavily silted. The impact of high water congestion caused the inundation of farmland on both sides of the river, forcing some counties to move out. In addition, the Wei River, previously an underground river, became an “above-ground river,” with the estuary rising 4 meters, threatening Xi’an.

The water table in the Weihe Plain rose, salinizing the land… Six years later, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution began, and 3.4 billion cubic meters of silt had accumulated, accounting for 44.4 percent of the dam’s capacity. As a result, the Sanmenxia Dam officially became a “dead reservoir.” 

The construction of the Sanmenxia Dam forced 280,000 peasants to relocate from the Weihe Plain. Over 40 years, this number grew to 450,000 people. They were forced to move to Gansu and the Weibei Plateau, where the land is barren and water-scarce, making it difficult for them to maintain primary survival conditions. Despite 17 attempts to move back home, the ground in the dam area had become too saline for cultivation.

The construction of the Sanmenxia Dam forced 280,000 peasants to relocate from the Weihe Plain.
The construction of the Sanmenxia Dam forced 280,000 peasants to relocate from the Weihe Plain. (Image: via Wikipedia)

During the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam, materials were imported from abroad at a high cost, with the exchange rate being two bags of wheat for one bag of cement or two tons of pork for one ton of steel. Renowned hydrology expert Wang Weiluo stated that the project was budgeted for 1.3 billion yuan, but the actual cost was 4 billion yuan.

This was a significant waste of resources, particularly during the “3 years of famine” in which tens of millions of Chinese people starved. If this money had been used to purchase disaster relief food, it could have provided an estimated 80 billion pounds of food. How many lives could have been saved?

Furthermore, when Huang Wanli’s opposition to the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam was rejected, he suggested: “If the dam must be built, then silt-discharging tubes should be built to flush out sediment from the reservoir in the future.” Although this design, including outlets and tubes, was approved by the State Council, during the construction phase, the lines were still blocked based on the original suggestions from Soviet experts.

In March 1962, the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power declared the Sanmenxia Dam project a failure. The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party held several meetings to discuss the crisis; in December 1964, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai concluded that the dam reconstruction could not be delayed to ensure the safety of Xi’an and downstream areas.

As a result, two tunnels were built on the sides of the Yellow River, and four pipes were laid to drain water and sand. In addition, four of the eight generators were destroyed, leaving only four to generate a fraction of the expected capacity of 1.2 million kilowatts. However, the initial reconstruction still did not work. Five years later, in 1969, the tubes that Huang Wanli had strongly advocated unblocked had to be reopened at 10 million yuan each.

Even the second reconstruction failed to save the Yellow River. The upstream situation continued to deteriorate; from 1972, downstream areas experienced continuous cutoffs. In the 1990s, downstream areas had cutoffs for 100 days on average. In 1997, it reached a peak of 222 days.

From August 27 to October 2003, the most severe flooding in over 50 years happened in the Wei River, bringing home the dangers of the Sanmenxia Dam project. The flood caused several breaches, and dozens of deaths affected 5.15 million people and caused direct economic losses of 2.3 billion yuan. However, it is worth noting that the Wei River flood was only equivalent to the same flood level that happens every 3 to 5 years. 

The Sanmenxia Dam has gone through a history of more than 60 years, witnessing the tragedy of a centralized authoritarian regime. Likewise, the Yellow River demonstrates the tears of the people under the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party.

The surviving Sanmenxia Dam, which began with the illusion of greatness created by the head of the Chinese Communist Party, continues to expose the viciousness of the Party’s scourge on the country and its people. 

Huang Wanli, a doctorate in engineering from the University of Illinois and a professor at Qinghua University, was labeled a rightist by the authorities in 1957 and faced discrimination and persecution for 22 years. He was only acquitted in 1980.

However, the experts who supported the construction of the Sanmenxia Dam at the expense of the Chinese people’s well-being were rewarded. Huang also consistently opposed building the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River throughout his life, but decision-makers did not adopt his advice. He also detailed 12 drawbacks of the Three Gorges Dam, predicting it would eventually need to be demolished.

Unfortunately, all of his predictions about the Sanmenxia Dam came true. Will his predictions about the Three Gorges Dam also come true?

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