Dam Safety and Earthquakes

Until now no people have died from the failure or damage of a large water storage dam due to earthquake. Earthquakes have always been a significant aspect of the design and safety of dams.

A large storage dam consists of a concrete or fill dam with a height exceeding 15m, a grout curtain or cut-off to minimise leakage of water through the dam foundation, a spillway for the safe release of floods, a bottom outlet for lowering the reservoir in emergencies, and a water intake structure to take the water from the reservoir for commercial use. Depending on the use of the reservoir there are other components such as a power intake, penstock, powerhouse, device for control of environmental flow, fish ladder, etc.

During the Richter magnitude 8 Wenchuan earthquake of 12 May 2008, 1803 concrete and embankment dams and reservoirs and 403 hydropower plants were damaged. Likewise, during the 27 February 2010 Maule earthquake in Chile of Richter magnitude 8.8, several dams were damaged. However, no large dams failed due to either of these two very large earthquakes.


In order to prevent the uncontrolled rapid release of water from the reservoir of a storage dam during a strong earthquake, the dam must be able to withstand the strong ground shaking from even an extreme earthquake, which is referred to as the Safety Evaluation Earthquake (SEE) or the Maximum Credible Earthquake (MCE). Large storage dams are generally considered safe if they can survive an event with a return period of 10,000 years, i.e. having a one percent chance of being exceeded in 100 years. It is very difficult to predict what can happen during such a rare event as very few earthquakes of this size have actually affected dams. Therefore it is important to refer to the few such observations that are available. The main lessons learnt from the large Wenchuan and Chile earthquakes will have an impact on the seismic safety assessment of existing dams and the design of new dams in the future.

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  • Raj Janorkar

    Dam Safety and Earthquakes

    2 years ago