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Dam failure

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Dam failure

The reservoir emptying through the failed Teton Dam

A dam is a barrier across flowing water that obstructs, directs or slows down the flow, often creating a reservoir, lake or impoundments. Most dams have a section called a spillway or weir over which, or through which, water flows, either intermittently or continuously, and some have hydroelectric power generation systems installed.

Dams are considered "installations containing dangerous forces" under International Humanitarian Law due to the massive impact of a possible destruction on the civilian population and the environment. Dam failures are comparatively rare, but can cause immense damage and loss of life when they occur. In 1975 the failure of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam and other dams in Henan Province, China caused more casualties than any other dam failure in history. The disaster killed an estimated 171,000 people[1] and 11 million people lost their homes. In 2012 a dam in northern state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil failed forcing thousands of people from homes. The water broke through the dam protecting the town of Campos de Goytacazes. Officials described the situation as race against time to evacuate people before the area becomes flooded. Since this incident, the Brazil government has step up early warning systems to ensure people evacuate before floods strike. [2]

Main causes of dam failure

International special sign for works and installations containing dangerous forces

Common causes of dam failure include:

Deliberate dam failure

A notable case of deliberate dam failure (prior to the Humanitarian Law rulings) was the British Royal Air Force Dambusters raid on Germany in World War II (codenamed "Operation Chastise"), in which three German dams were selected to be breached in order to impact on German infrastructure and manufacturing and power capabilities deriving from the Ruhr and Eder rivers. This raid later became the basis for several films.

Other cases include the Chinese bombing of multiple dams during Typhoon Nina (1975) in an attempt to drain them before their reservoirs overflowed. The typhoon produced what is now considered a 1-in-2000 years flood, which few if any of these dams were designed to survive.

List of major dam failures

Dam/incident Year Location Fatalities Details
Marib Dam 575 Sheba, Yemen Unknown (possibly neglect)
Puentes Dam 1802 Lorca, Spain 608 1800 houses and 40000 trees destroyed[3]
Bilberry reservoir 1852 Holme Valley, West Yorkshire, England 81 Failed due to heavy rain
Dale Dike Reservoir 1864 South Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom 244 Defective construction, small leak in wall grew until dam failed.
Mill River Dam 1874 Williamsburg, Massachusetts, United States 139 Lax regulations and cost cutting lead to an insufficient design, which fell apart when the reservoir was full. 600 million gallons of water were released, wiping out 4 towns and making national headlines. This dam break lead to increased regulation of dam construction.
South Fork Dam 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, United States 2,209 Blamed locally on poor maintenance by owners; court deemed it an "Act of God". Followed exceptionally heavy rainfall. Caused Johnstown flood.
Walnut Grove Dam 1890 Wickenburg, Arizona Territory, United States Heavy snow and rain following public calls by the dam's chief engineer to strengthen the earthen structure.
Gohna Lake dam 1894 India 1 Failure of a landslide dam.
McDonald Dam 1900 Texas, United States 0 Extreme current caused failure.
Hauser Dam 1908 Helena, Montana, United States 0 Heavy flooding coupled with poor foundation quality
Austin Dam 1911 Austin, Pennsylvania, United States 78 Poor design, use of dynamite to remedy structural problems.
Desná Dam 1916 Desná, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic) 62 Construction flaws caused the dam failure
Lake Toxaway Dam 1916 Transylvania County, North Carolina 0 Heavy rains caused the dam to give way. Dam was later rebuilt in the 1960s
Sweetwater Dam 1916 San Diego County, California 0 Over-topped from flooding
Lower Otay Dam 1916 San Diego County, California 14 Over-topped from flooding
Tigra Dam 1917 India 1,000 Failed due to water infiltrating through foundation. Possibly more fatalities.
Gleno Dam 1923 Province of Bergamo, Italy 356 Poor construction and design
Llyn Eigiau dam and the outflow also destroyed Coedty reservoir dam. 1925 Dolgarrog, North Wales, UK 17 Contractor blamed cost-cutting in construction but 25" of rain had fallen in preceding 5 days. This was the last dam failure to cause death in the UK to date (2013).
St. Francis Dam 1928 Santa Clarita, California, Los Angeles County, United States 600 Geological instability of canyon wall that could not have been detected with available technology of the time.
Secondary Dam of Sella Zerbino 1935 Molare, Province of Alessandria, Italy 111 Geological unstable base combined with flood.
Nanty Gro Reservoir in Wales 1942 Nanty Gro Valley, Wales 0 Destroyed during preparation for Operation Chastise in World War II.
Eder, Möhne Dams 1943 Eder Valley, Ruhr, Germany 70 Destroyed by bombing during Operation Chastise in World War II.
Tangiwai disaster 1953 New Zealand 151 Failure of Mount Ruapehu's crater lake.
Vega de Tera 1959 Ribadelago, Spain 144 According to dam workers testimonies, the grounds had serious structural deficiencies due to poor construction. On the night of January 9, a 150 meters long portion of the contention wall collapsed letting out nearly 8 million cubic meters of stored water. [4]
Malpasset 1959 Côte d'Azur, France 423 Geological fault possibly enhanced by explosives work during construction; initial geo-study was not thorough.
Panshet Dam 1961 Pune, India 1,000 Dam wall burst due to pressue of accumulated rain water resulting in about a thousand fatalities.[5]
Baldwin Hills Reservoir 1963 Los Angeles, California, United States 5 Subsidence caused by over-exploitation of local oil field.
Spaulding Pond Dam (Mohegan Park) 1963 Norwich, Connecticut, United States 6 More than $6 million estimated damages.
Vajont Dam 1963 Italy 2,000 Strictly not a dam failure, since the dam structure did not collapse and is still standing. Filling the reservoir caused geological failure in valley wall, leading to 110 km/h landslide into the lake; water escaped in a seiche over the top of dam. Valley had been incorrectly assessed stable.
Kurenivka mudslide 1961-03-13 Kiev, Ukraine 1,500 Caused by heavy rains with up to 2,000 fatalities.
Swift Dam (Montana) 1964-06-10 Montana, United States 28 Caused by heavy rains.
Mina Plakalnitsa, (Vratsa) 1966 Vratsa, Bulgaria 107 A tailings dam at Plakalnitsa copper mine near the city of Vratsa failed. A total 450,000 cu m of mud and water inundated Vratsa and the nearby village of Zgorigrad, which suffered widespread damage. The official death toll is 107, but the unofficial estimate is around 500 killed.[6]
Sempor Dam 1967 Central Java Province, Republic of Indonesia >2000 Flash floods over-topped the dam during construction.[7]
Certej dam failure 1971 Certej Mine, Romania 89 A tailings dam built too tall collapsed, flooding Certeju de Sus with toxic tailings.[8]
Buffalo Creek Flood 1972 West Virginia, United States 125 Unstable loose constructed dam created by local coal mining company, collapsed in heavy rain.
Canyon Lake Dam 1972 South Dakota, United States 238 Flooding, dam outlets flooded with debris.
Banqiao and Shimantan Dams 1975 China 171,000 Extreme rainfall, beyond the planned design capability of the dam, dumped on China by Typhoon Nina. Worst dam failure.
Teton Dam 1976 Idaho, United States 11 Water leakage through earthen wall, leading to dam failure.
Laurel Run Dam 1977 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, United States 40 Heavy rainfall and flooding that over-topped the dam.
Kelly Barnes Dam 1977 United States 39 Unknown, possibly design error as dam was raised several times by owners to improve power generation.
Machchu-2 Dam 1979 Morbi, Gujarat, India 5,000 Heavy rain and flooding beyond spillway capacity. Old estimates were 1,800-25,000 but a recent book by Sandersara & Wooten reduce the bracket to 5,000-10,000.[9]
Wadi Qattara Dam 1979 Benghazi, Libya 0 Flooding beyond discharge and storage capacity damaged the main dam and destroyed the secondary dam in the scheme.
Lawn Lake Dam 1982 Rocky Mountain National Park, United States 3 Outlet pipe erosion; dam under-maintained due to location
Tous Dam 1982 Valencia, Spain 25 Heavy flooding coupled with poor quality of the dam wall, lack of qualified staff and negligence of a warning of heavy rain in the area. On the next day, newspapers reported possibly 40 fatalities and 25 disappeared but in the coming days the count went down to 8 or 9. One year later, LaVanguardia spoke of 25.
Val di Stava dam 1985 Italy 268 Poor maintenance and low margin for error in design; outlet pipes failed leading to pressure on dam.
Upriver Dam 1986 Washington state, United States 0 Lightning struck power system, turbines shut down. Water rose behind dam while trying to restart. Backup power systems failed, could not raise spillway gates in time. Dam overtopped(rebuilt).
Kantale Dam 1986-04-20 Kantale, Sri Lanka 180 Poor maintenance, leakage, and consequent failure.
Peruća Dam detonation 1993 Croatia 0 Not strictly a dam failure as there was a detonation of pre-positioned explosives by retreating Serb Forces.
Merriespruit tailings dam 1994 Free State, South Africa 17 Dam failed after a heavy thunderstorm. The dam was in an unacceptable condition prior to failure.
Saguenay Flood 1996 Quebec, Canada 10 Problems started after two weeks of constant rain, which severely engorged soils, rivers and reservoirs. Post-flood enquiries discovered that the network of dikes and dams protecting the city was poorly maintained.
Meadow Pond Dam 1996 New Hampshire, United States 1 Design and construction deficiencies resulted in failure in heavy icing conditions
Opuha Dam 1997 New Zealand 0 Heavy rain during construction caused failure, dam was later completed
Aznalcollar Mine Tailings Dam / The Doñana disaster 1998-04-25 Spain 0 Over-steepened dam failed by sliding on weak clay foundation, releasing 4–5 million cubic metres of acidic mine tailings into the River Agrio, a tributary of the River Guadiamar, which is the main water source for the Doñana National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Shihgang Dam 1999-09-21 Taiwan 0 Caused by damage sustained during the 921 earthquake.
Martin County coal slurry spill 2000-10-11 Martin County, Kentucky, United States 0 Failure of a coal slurry impoundment.
Vodní nádrž Soběnov 2002 Soběnov, Czech Republic Extreme rainfall during the 2002 European floods
Zeyzoun Dam 2002 Zeyzoun, Syria 22 Failed 4 June 2002 affecting 10,000.[10][11]
Ringdijk Groot-Mijdrecht(nl) 2003 Wilnis, Netherlands Peat dam became lighter than water during droughts and floated away
Hope Mills Dam 2003-05 North Carolina, United States 0 Caused by heavy rains.
Silver Lake Dam 2003-05-14 Michigan, United States 0 Heavy rains caused earthen dam and bank to wash away
Big Bay Dam 2004 Mississippi, United States 0 A small hole in the dam grew and eventually led to failure
Camará Dam 2004-06-17 Paraiba, Brazil 3 Poor maintenance. 3000 people homeless. A second failure happened 11 days after.
Shakidor Dam 2005 Pakistan 70 Sudden and extreme flooding caused by abnormally severe rain
Taum Sauk reservoir 2005 Lesterville, Missouri, United States 0 Computer/operator error; gauges intended to mark dam full were not respected; dam continued to fill. Minor leakages had also weakened the wall through piping.
Campos Novos Dam 2006 Campos Novos, Brazil 0 Tunnel collapse.
Gusau Dam 2006 Gusau, Nigeria 40 Heavy flooding
Ka Loko Dam 2006 Kauai, Hawaii 7[12] Heavy rain and flooding. Several possible specific factors to include poor maintenance, lack of inspection and illegal modifications.
Lake Delton 2008-06-09 Lake Delton, Wisconsin 0 Failure due to June 2008 Midwest floods.
Koshi Barrage 2008 Kusha, Nepal 250 Heavy rain. The flood affected over 2.3 million people in the northern part of Bihar.
Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill 2008-12-22 Roane County, Tennessee, United States 0 Failure of a fly ash slurry pond.
Algodões Dam 2009-05-27 Cocal, Piaui, Brazil 7 Heavy rain.[13] 80 people injured, 2000 homeless.
Sayano–Shushenskaya Dam 2009-08-17 Sayanogorsk, Russia 75 Collapses when turbine 2 broke apart violently, flooding the turbine hall and causing the ceiling to collapse.
Situ Gintung Dam 2009 Tangerang, Indonesia 98 Poor maintenance and heavy monsoon rain
Kyzyl-Agash Dam 2010 Kazakhstan 43 Heavy rain and snowmelt
Hope Mills Dam 2010 North Carolina, United States 0 Sinkhole caused dam failure
Testalinda Dam 2010-06-13 Oliver, British Columbia 0 Heavy Rain, low maintenance. Destroyed at least 5 homes. Buried Highway 97.
Delhi Dam 2010-07-24 Iowa, United States 0 Heavy rain, flooding.
Niedow Dam 2010-08-07 Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland 1[14] Heavy rain, over-topped from flooding
Ajka alumina plant accident 2010-10-04 Hungary 10 Failure of concrete impound wall on alumina plant tailings dam.
Kenmare Resources tailings dam 2010-10-08 Mozambique 0 Failure of tailings dam at titanium mine.
Fujinuma Dam 2011-03-11 Japan 8 Failed after 2011 Tōhoku earthquake. 7 dead and 1 unknown. Japanese authority says dam failure caused by earthquake which has death toll is not reported world-wide since 1930.[15]
Campos dos Goytacazes Dam, Brazil 2012-01-04 Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil 0 Failed after a period of flooding.[16] 4000 people displaced.
Ivanovo Dam 2012-02-06 Biser, Bulgaria 8 Failed after a period of heavy snowmelt. A crack in the dam went un-repaired for years. Eight people killed and several communities flooded.[17]
Köprü Dam 2012-02-24 Adana Province, Turkey 10 A gate in the diversion tunnel broke after a period of heavy rain during the reservoir's first filing. The accident killed ten workers.[18][19]
Tokwe Mukorsi Dam 2014-02-04 Masvingo Province, Zimbabwe 0 Downstream slope failure on a 90.3 m (296 ft) tall embankment dam, possibly as the reservoir was being filled. Residents evacuated upstream.

See also


  1. ^ Osnos, Evan. "Faust, China, and Nuclear Power," The New Yorker, Wednesday October 12, 2011. Retrieved at on October 12, 2011
  2. ^ Brazil dam burst forces thousands from homes. (2012, January 5). BBC. Retrieved from,
  3. ^ La rotura del pantano de Puentes
  4. ^ 40 años de la tragedia de Ribadelago, en la que murieron 144 personas (Spanish)
  5. ^ .. July 12, 1961 - Lest We Forget
  6. ^
  7. ^ Wohl, Ellen (2013). Mountain Rivers Revisited. John Wiley & Sons. p. 338.  
  8. ^ "Certej 1971, tragedia uitată a 89 de vieţi îngropate sub 300 de mii de metri cubi de nămol".  
  9. ^ "No One Had a Tongue to Speak". 12 May 2014. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  10. ^ "Syria - Collapse of Dam/floods OCHA Situation Report No. 4". ReliefWeb. Retrieved 26 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Chanson, Hubert Chanson Hubert (2009). "Embankment Overflow Protection Systems and Earth Dam Spillways". Dams: Impacts, Stability and Design. 
  12. ^ "Kauai Dam Breach Killed 7 People Five Years Ago, But Criminal Charges Against Dam Owner Still Pending." Hawaii Reporter. Retrieved 24 July 2013.
  13. ^ "Breaching of the Algodões dam and the threat of mega-projects". Movement of Dam Affected People. 29 May 2009. Retrieved 6 January 2012. 
  14. ^ Ereignisanalyse Hochwasser im August und September 2010 und im Januar 2011 in Sachsen, chapter 9 (pdf, 16,34 MB)
  15. ^ (JPN)
  16. ^ "Brazil dam burst forces thousands from homes". BBC. 5 January 2012. Retrieved 6 January 2012. 
  17. ^ "Bulgarian Dam Collapsed over Unrepaired Crack since 2003". NoVinite. 6 February 2012. Retrieved 26 February 2012. 
  18. ^ "Cover Kozan Dam Explosion" (in Turkish). Haberler. 8 March 2012. Retrieved 11 March 2012. 
  19. ^ "Holding Ozaltin conscience" (in Turkish). Emlak Kulisi. 10 March 2012. Retrieved 11 March 2012. 

External links

  • A list of dam failures and incidents in the United States Dam
  • Chronology of major tailings dam failures from 1960 WISE Uranium Project
  • Chanson, H. (2009) Application of the Method of Characteristics to the Dam Break Wave Problem Journal of Hydraulic Research, IAHR, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 41–49 doi:10.3826/jhr.2009.2865 (ISSN 0022-1686). Available as a pdf at [1]
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