Yet Another Catastrophe in Mao’s China
Bad as the Johnstown Flood was, its destructiveness paled in comparison to this next disaster, the Banqiao Dam Collapse. The toxic fruits of Mao’s Great Leap Forward continued to inflict misery upon China for many years, long after it was wrapped up. While the program was still a going concern, Mao’s government had what was on its face a good idea: build a series of dams, to retain water and provide hydroelectricity. They were built with the help of Soviet experts, but in what turned out to be a bad idea, costs and time were cut by cutting corners on safety – especially flood control safety. A chief engineer blew the whistle on the danger, but he was ignored, accused of lacking communist zeal, and exiled. One of those dams was constructed at Banqiao, on the Ru River in Henan.
It stood 387-feet-high, and had a storage capacity of 17.4 billion cubic feet. The dam was rated to withstand “a thousand-year flood”, that is it was deemed safe against any flood other than one so severe that odds were that it would happen only once in a millennium. It took considerably less than a millennium for such a flood to arrive. A dam strong enough to withstand anything but a fluke thousand-year flood was sound in theory. As it turned out, however, planners had either miscalculated what a thousand-year flood was, or Mao’s China was simply unlucky. Either way, in early August, 1975, Typhoon Nina struck, stalled over the Banqiao Dam area, and produced flooding double the anticipated thousand-year-level maximum. Even then, what came to be known as The Banqiao Dam Disaster could have been averted if not for incompetence and poor communications.