Famous Dam Failures

10/03/13 at 9:24 am

The history of dam construction is as old as the history of human civilization itself. Dams were built in Mesopotamia to raise the water level in order to manage its irrigation system. Need for building the dam arose due to the inconsistent flow of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris on account of the unpredictability of the weather particularly in view of the inconsistency in the frequency and intensity of rains. The earliest known dam in recorded history was the Jawa Dam built in Jordan in 3000 B.C. It was a 9-meter high and 1-meter thick gravity dam which was made of stones and supported by a 50-meter earthen rampart. The history of the failure of dams is similarly also as old as the history of building dams. At about 25 km south of Cairo, Egypt the Sadd-el-Kafara Dam at Wadi Al-Garawi, built in 2600 B.C., collapsed due to heavy rains during its construction. The failure of dams was caused mostly by one or more of the factors including: poor construction material, designing flaws, lack of corrective or preventive measures, unforeseen heavy rains or earthquakes, miscalculated flow of rivers, and unstable geology of the site.

1. The Banqiao Reservoir Dam

The Banqiao Reservoir Dam


Construction of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam was started in April, 1951 in consultation with Soviet engineers. Then a Chinese engineer, Chen Xiang, recommended a provision of 12 sluice or sliding gates, but only 5 were provided which ultimately proved to be a blunder. The dam was built on the River Ru in the Zhumadian Prefecture, Henan, China. It failed catastrophically on August 8, 1975 when 1060 mm of rain fell in 1 day, exceeding the average of 800 mm precipitation per year. The rain was followed by the typhoon Nina which ruled out any resistance by the dam. The disaster caused more than 100,000 deaths and more than 11 million people lost their homes within 24 hours. It was the deadliest and the most disastrous dam failure in recorded history. The magnitude of the disaster can be perceived by considering the facts that the flood wave was 10 km wide, 7 meters high, and rushed at the speed of 50 km per hour. The flood wiped out an area of 55 km in length and 15 km in width.

2. Machuchu-2 Dam

India Gujarat locator map

Location of Gujarat in India

Machuchu-2 Dam was built on the Machhu River near the Morvi Town in district  of Gujarat in India. On August 11, 1979, the dam gave way to the heavy rains threefold in magnitude the dam was designed for. Within 20 minutes of the collapse of the dam, a huge wall of water up to 9.1 meters in height entered and washed away the industrial town of Morvi and its suburban, low-lying areas. The number of deaths is not known exactly, but some estimates reached up to 15,000 people. The Morvi or Machuchu Dam failure has been recorded on the list of the worst dam bursts. The failure also caused heavy economic losses due to the consequent failure of crops.

3. Gleno Dam

Gleno Dam

Gleno Dam

Construction of the Gleno Dam on the Gleno River in the valley of Scalve, Bergamo province, Italy, started in 1916, and it was completed on October 22, 1923. Forty days after its reservoir was full, a portion of the dam collapsed on December 1, 1923 at
6:30 a.m. and 4,500,000 cubic meters of water gushed out of the crack and flowed from an elevation of 1,535 meters above sea level towards the low-lying valley destroying everything in its way. More than 336 people were killed. The dam was originally built for generation of hydroelectric power, and its original design as a gravity dam changed later on to a multiple-arch dam. The use of substandard materials including poor-quality concrete, reuse of scrap netting, and an abrupt design change caused the failure of the dam.

4. Shakidor Dam

Location of Balochistan

Location of Balochistan

Shakidor Dam was built in 2003 near Pasni in the Balochistan Province of Pakistan. It was built for the purpose of irrigation to the farmlands. Following torrential rains for two weeks, on February 10, 2005, the dam failed. The failure caused the death of 70 persons leaving many injured and homeless. Army rescue operations saved the lives of 1,000 people while more than 700 were missing and their fate was not known exactly. Many bodies were swept into the Arabian Sea. The damage to the dam rendered it irreparable.

5. Kopru Dam

Location of Köprü Dam

Location of Köprü Dam

Köprü Barajı Dam was located in Kozan, Adana province in Turkey. It was a gravity dam made of compact concrete. It was built to produce hydrostatic electricity. Construction of the dam started in 2009 and was completed in 2012. Following the heavy rains during its first filling, the dam broke, giving way to the huge flow of 97,000,000 cubic meters of water flooding the downstream areas. The failure caused the death of 10 persons. The  root cause of the failure was assigned to the breaking of the dam’s diversion tunnel seal.

6. The Teton Dam

The Teton Dam

The Teton Dam

Construction of the Teton Dam on the Teton River in Idaho, U.S., between Freemost and Madison counties started in 1972 and was completed in November, 1975. The site of the dam was composed of rhyolite and basal, which, on account of their porosity, are considered unsuitable for the construction of a dam. The Teton Dam was an earthen dam, and its filling started in November, 1975. On June 5, 1976, at 7:30 a.m. just a short time after the appearance of a muddy leakage, the dam collapsed killing 11 people and 13,000 head of cattle. The dam was built at a cost of $100 million, and $300 million was paid to victims’ families to settle  insurance claims. The total damage was estimated up to $2 billion.

7. St. Francis Dam

St. Francis Dam

St. Francis Dam

The St. Francis Dam was located in San Francisquito Canyon, 64 km northwest of Los Angeles. It was built between 1924 and 1926 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power under the supervision of the chief engineer William Mulholland. The purpose of building this dam was to develop a big reservoir for a needed water supply. The dam collapsed when nearing midnight on March 12, 1928, killing 600 people. It is considered the biggest and deadliest dam failure in America in the 20th century. Next only to the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the failure of the St. Francis Dam, its failure caused the greatest loss of life.

8. Malpasset Dam

Malpasset Dam

Malpasset Dam

Malpasset was an arch-type dam built on the Revran River, Cote d’Azur, France. Its construction started in April, 1952 and was completed in 1954. The purpose of building the dam was to create a reservoir for a needed water supply and to irrigate the region. On December 2, 1959 at 21:13, the walls of the dam collapsed. The breach caused a huge dam break with a 40-meter-high wall of water that was moving at the speed of 70 km per hour which devoured the villages of Malpasset and Bozon killing 421 people. No significant fault in the selection of the site and its composition was noted. It is considered that heavy rainfall preceding the failure was the root cause.

9. The Mohne Reservoir

The Mohne Reservoir

The Mohne Reservoir

The Mohne Reservoir was an artificial lake created by building dams on the Rivers Mohne and Heve. The lake was located in North Rhine Westphalia at a distance of about 45 km from Dortmund, Germany. At midnight on May 17, 1943, the RAF, the Royal Air Force, bombarded the dam and destroyed it with the consequent hole measuring 77 by 22 m which created a flood wave killing 1,579 people. About 800 of them were killed in the small town of Neheim-Hustein which was affected the most. The victims were mostly the  foreign forced labor.

10. Buffalo Creek Flood

Buffalo Creek Flood

Buffalo Creek Flood

Coal Slurry Impoundment Dam #3 was constructed by the Pittston Coals Company on a hillside in Logan County, West Virginia, U.S. Just four days after its clearance by the federal authorities, the dam collapsed on February 26, 1972. It caused a 30-foot-high  flood wave of black wastewater which destroyed the residential areas of Buffalo Creek killing 125 people out of a total population of 5,000. The failure also caused damage to many homes in different areas of Lundale, Saunders, Amherstdale, Crites, Lardo, and Latrobe. The Pittston Coal Company called it an Act of God in its legal filings.


The importance of dams can be realized by the fact that even animals are fully aware and capable of building dams, like beavers, who are intuitively great dam builders. And seeing them at work or even knowing about them is a pure delight. The International Humanitarian Law recognizes dams as “installations containing dangerous forces” due to potential disasters they may cause in the case of failure. An American humorist, James Thurber, wrote an interesting story The Day the Dam Broke which reflects upon the human awareness of the dam as a dangerous force and also upon how people act individually and collectively in case of an imminent danger.


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Image Credit :

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Banqiaomap.png http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:India_Gujarat_locator_map.svg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gleno_Dam_02.JPG http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Balochistan_in_Pakistan.svg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Turkey_location_map.svg http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Malpasset-1988.jpg
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