quotes Should we be concerned about dams worldwide?

24 September 2023
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Updated 24 September 2023

Should we be concerned about dams worldwide?

In a country like Libya, which has been plagued by civil war since 2014 and continues to suffer from instability, we have not paid much attention to the poorly maintained dam infrastructure as a potential source of tragedy.

The recent breach of two dams during Storm Daniel resulted in devastating floodwater that split the city of Derna, home to 100,000 people. Tragically, over 10,000 residents of Derna are now either dead or missing, with little hope of survival.

These dams, built in the 1970s, have not been properly maintained since 2002. The UN has issued a warning that two other dams in the region are also at risk of failure. It is evident that there are likely numerous dams worldwide that pose a similar risk of triggering such disasters, along with other manmade infrastructure that could potentially pose even greater threats.

In his article titled “Is it the Beginning of a New Extinction Era?” published in Asharq Al-Awsat, Najib Saab, secretary-general of the Arab Forum for Environment, warns against using climate change as a justification for hiding issues such as poor planning, corruption, and deficiencies in insufficient infrastructure. This includes dams, bridges, sewage networks, and forest management.

I believe we can all agree on this. However, the intensification of climate change and extreme weather conditions are undoubtedly increasing the risk factor, which will likely lead to more unforeseen failures of manmade infrastructure. As nature becomes increasingly displeased with us, we face punishment on a daily basis.

According to a recent article in Scientific American magazine, a 2021 report by the UN examined over 50,000 large dams worldwide. The report revealed that a significant portion of these dams were constructed over 50 years ago, surpassing the age at which they are considered to have an elevated risk of failure.

In the US, the average age of dams is 65 years. The report highlights the Mullaperiyar Dam in the Indian state of Kerala as an example. This dam is located at a state border where political relations are strained and in a region prone to earthquakes. It is over 125 years old and exhibits visible signs of damage.

While dams play a crucial role in providing drinking water, irrigation, flood control, and electricity, there is a looming potential for significant disasters if they are not properly maintained.

We have witnessed numerous instances of dam failures in the past. For instance, the St. Francis Dam near Los Angeles collapsed in 1928, resulting in the loss of 400 lives. Similarly, the failure of the Vajont Dam in Italy in 1963 claimed over 2,000 lives. China has also experienced devastating dam disasters, including the Banqiao Dam failure in 1975, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 200,000 people and rendered 11 million homeless. However, it is essential to acknowledge in this article the potential failures of other forms of manmade infrastructure.

Yearly occurrences of bridge failures, caused by poor maintenance or construction, serve as a reminder of the risks associated with such infrastructure. One notable example is the collapse of the
Ponte Morandi in Genoa a few years ago, resulting in the loss of 43 lives and leaving numerous individuals homeless. Additionally, the failure of 50 levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 claimed the lives of 1,400 people and caused extensive damage to 70 percent of occupied housing in the city.

Tragic events on a larger scale, such as the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 affecting over half a million people, the long-lasting impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and the nuclear accidents in Chernobyl and Fukushima, highlight the potential for even more catastrophic disasters.

We are confronted with numerous natural disasters, ranging from floods to destructive hurricanes, massive wildfires, heatwaves, and ice storms. It is crucial that we avoid exacerbating these by neglecting the maintenance of critical infrastructure, including dams, factories, and nuclear plants.

There are man-made disasters waiting to happen, and as we mentioned in a previous article, it is the weatherman who is reporting the real news that matters to us on a daily basis. If we do not ensure that infrastructure around the world is correctly built, maintained, and prepared to withstand the increasing fury of nature, then we will unfortunately see even greater tragedies befall us in the future, especially in the most impoverished parts of the world.

  • Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He led the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981 and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.