on April 13th, 2023

From life-saving infrastructure to lethal catastrophes, we look at some of the world’s worst dam disasters and critical lessons learned for civil engineers.

Civil engineers have played a crucial role in the construction of dams since the world’s first dam was built. These structures are integral to our infrastructure as they control floods, ensure a steady water supply to our homes and businesses, and generate renewable and emissions-free hydroelectric power.

However, dams also pose a significant risk to communities downstream due to the water they hold. Throughout history, catastrophic dam disasters, such as the Banqiao Dam failure in China in 1975, tragically claimed over 80,000 lives.

Despite improvements in engineering knowledge and construction quality, it is impossible to eliminate the risk of accidents caused by natural hazards or human actions. Over time, dam walls may deteriorate or suffer damage from floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, posing a safety risk to nearby communities and the environment.

This article examines some of the most catastrophic dam disasters and identifies crucial lessons that civil engineers can apply to improve dam construction safety.

5 Biggest Dam Failures and Lessons Learned

1. St. Francis Dam, USA: In 1928, St. Francis Dam in the United States experienced one of the most catastrophic civil engineering failures of the 20th century. Without warning, the dam unexpectedly failed and released 47 million m3 of water into San Francis Quito Canyon, resulting in devastating consequences, including the death of over 400 individuals.

Lessons Learned: As a result of this tragedy, important lessons were learned. Comprehensive geological surveys must be conducted when selecting dam sites to ensure their safety. The impact of uplift on the dam base must also be considered during the design process, and the foundation and seepage prevention design must account for uplift forces. In response to the disaster, California implemented new legislation requiring an independent review of proposed dam designs before the construction approval panel before approval for construction.

Civil engineers inspecting a disaster site

2. Malpasset Dam, France: The Malpasset Dam failure in France was the first known instance of an arch dam collapsing. The sudden failure and the fact that there were no prior signs of abnormality in the hours preceding the event added to the uncertainty and shock.

Lessons Learned: The failure of Malpasset Dam prompted a reassessment of dam design and construction methods. New methods were developed to mitigate the impact of uplift pressures on the dam’s foundation, identified as a significant contributing factor in the failure.

Additionally, monitoring instruments in appropriate locations became more widespread due to dam failure.

3. Vajont Dam, Italy: On 9 October 1963, the southern rock slope of the Vajont Dam in Italy failed along a stretch of approximately 2 km. The resulting disaster was devastating, claiming the lives of 2,040 people and wiping out five entire villages.

Lessons Learned: The failure of the Vajont Dam slope provided valuable insights into analyzing and monitoring slope movements. The incident highlighted the difficulty of accurately predicting when a rock mass will accelerate or fail and estimating changes in stress and strength during sliding.

4. Lower San Fernando Dam, USA: The Lower San Fernando Dam disaster occurred in 1971 when heavy rainfall caused the dam, built using hydraulic fill, to fail. The dam was constructed between 1912 and 1915 as part of a San Fernando, California, reservoir system. The dam’s failure resulted in the deaths of 15 people and caused extensive damage downstream.

Lessons Learned: The slide of the San Fernando Dam resulted in essential changes to future earth dam design and construction procedures. Site-specific seismograph data allowed for extensive analyses to be performed, improving preparedness. After the failure, procedures for dynamic stability analyses of earth dams were revised, and potential issues with hydraulic fill structures were identified.

5. Teton Dam, USA: This earth dam was built from 1972 to 1975. Unfortunately, during the first filling of water in June 1976, the dam failed, causing downstream regions to be flooded. The disaster resulted in 14 lives and an estimated financial loss of $400 million.

Lessons Learned: The Teton Dam failure was a significant learning opportunity due to its status as the tallest earthen dam to have failed. Key lessons learned include the need for instrumentation, protective filters to prevent seepage erosion, design of cut-off trenches, consideration of frost action, and the importance of adequate compaction control criteria and methods.

News Ways Engineers Improve Dam Safety

Ensuring dam safety is crucial, and engineers use various methods to improve it. They employ new design standards and construction improvements using high-performance concrete and advanced steel alloys.

Another critical way they improve safety is by using advanced monitoring and risk assessment technologies, including sensors and remote sensing, to detect dam issues and obtain more precise data for better decision-making. Probabilistic risk analysis techniques help prioritize safety measures and investments by quantifying failure scenarios’ likelihood and consequences.

Engineer assessing a dam

Finally, engineers improve emergency preparedness and response for dam failures with mandatory action plans, training, and drills. Social media, emergency notification systems, and satellite imagery aid in disseminating critical information.

In conclusion, combining improved design and construction, advanced monitoring and risk assessment techniques, and enhanced emergency preparedness and response strategies can help mitigate the risks associated with dams and ensure the safety of communities downstream.


The Fatal Engineering Flaws Behind the Deadliest Dam Failure in History
The modern dam engineer
Top 5 Biggest Dam Failures in the World
Dam Construction, Maintenance and Repair

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