Reflection: Disasters of Denial

With many natural disasters, the preparation and recovery define the ramifications of the disaster more than the intensity and scope of the event itself. This is very much the case with the Banqiao Dam Failure. It is the story of a state that forged ahead with its vision before, and notably after the disaster came.


Ignoring the Warnings

After the Maoist government found great success in their dams such as Banqiao constructed in 1951, over 100 more dams were constructed in the Henan region through the 1950s. These dams were constructed over the concerns of technical experts who raised concerns of oversaturating the region with dams and an inability to deal with potential floods (Human Rights Watch). Nonetheless, the Great Leap Forward construction forged onward, retaining more and more water following the guidance directly from Mao that “a drop of water is a handful of grain,” (Si).


Furthermore, in the years leading up to the summer of 1975, numerous dam safety measures had been removed. Dikes were unmaintained, flood diversion zones had been converted to expand agricultural lands, and sluice gates had been removed to or permanently closed to preserve water retention (HRW). Chen Xing, one of the leading hydrologists in China advising the dam project warned that “the belief that the dams by themselves would suffice to contain even 1000-year downpours lead to disaster if any dam collapses occurred for there would be nowhere for the released water to go,” (HRW). Xing’s protests were ignored and he was removed from his position of influence with the Chinese government, (HRW). Yet his dire predictions came precisely true, as the failure of the Banqiao Dam led to a torrential cascade of water that could only continue downriver in a domino effect that caused the collapse of 62 smaller dams (Si).


Post-disaster Failures

Similarly even after the disaster happened the focus of Chinese government officials was suppressing information. Little information made it out of Henan province after the disaster, and little support made it in (Smith). The Chinese government’s main focusing was limiting the awareness of the disaster and preserving the legitimacy of the communist party and its industrial projects. Although one high ranking Chinese official claimed “the principal responsibility for what has happened,” she did nothing further than that (HRW). No attempts to repair the damaged communities of Henan province or reinstate the safety practices advocated for by those like Chen Xing (HRW).


After the Banqiao Dam failure demonstrated the deadly potential of catastrophic dam failures the Chinese government continued to build, with little acknowledgment of the disaster (Smith). The environmental group Probe International has identified 130 Chinese dams in highly seismic regions (Jackson). Many of these dams are clustered in a similar fashion to those in Henan province in the 1970s, and could be susceptible to the domino effect of dam failures through a watershed (Jackson). To add insult to injury, the Banqiao Dam was reconstructed “in the face of widespread local opposition” in 1986, looming over the villages it had destroyed eleven years earlier (HRW). By failing to acknowledge the consequences of past disasters, China continues to expose its people and land to repeated catastrophic dangers.


New Orleans and San Francisco

This pattern, pre, and post-disaster, is quite similar to natural disasters in San Francisco, with its great earthquake in 1906, and New Orleans, in the case of hurricane Katrina. San Francisco was marred but numerous mid-sized earthquakes during the late 1800s yet these signs of danger largely went unheeded. They continued their process of unstable expansion by filling the marsh and bay. There was a sense that San Franciscans could control the landscape, having faith in technological advances and ignoring clear dangers, just as the Chinese felt their dams would be “invincible” and there was no need to plan for flood potential. Similarly, during Hurricane Katrina in 2003, the forecasts predicted how the storm would unfold, but the same government that had the weather agency failed to take steps to prepare or support those most vulnerable until well after the hurricane had landed and the most significant damage was done.

Also in New Orleans and San Francisco, the recovery was patchwork and overlooked those most in need. Oftentimes those in power were more consumed by fixing the narrative of the disaster than fixing the lives of people most affected. Recovery in New Orleans and San Francisco was about quickly stabilizing the economy and ignoring many of the effects of the disasters on the most vulnerable people.

Post-disaster scenes from New Orleans (top) and San Francisco(bottom) (McGraw, Niekerken).

In all three cases, the natural event: the flood, the earthquake, or the hurricane, would have still happened. However, the impetus for these events becoming “natural disasters” was largely an effect of reckless planning and failure to heed warnings on the part of humans. These failures were exacerbated post-disaster by not helping those in need and failing to repair the structure that enabled disaster. The Banqiao dam failure was catalyzed by a natural event, but it is an intensely human disaster.