Foundation, Concrete and Earthquake Engineering

Failure of Dam

A dam can be defined as an obstruction or a barrier built across a stream or a river. At the back of this barrier, water gets collected, forming a pool of water. The side on which water gets collected is called the upstream side, and the other side of barrier is called the downstream side. The lake of water which is formed upstream is often called reservoir.

Function of Dam

The function of dams is to block the flow of a river creating an natural storage tank for the now trapped water. It provides water for irrigation and water supply for domestic use. It can improve navigation and create a reservoir of water for to supply industrial uses, generates hydro-electric power, create recreation areas. It is also a habitat for fish and wild life. The most important function of dam is to control flood. It can control effluent from industrial sites such as mines or factories.

Dam Failure

A functional dam needs to be strong enough to hold back its reservoir and it needs to be able to pass flood water through the structure during heavy rains and periods of increased run-off. Dams are classified by the material and design used in construction and the failure is also depends on such classification. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines dam failure as a catastrophic type of failure, resulting a sudden, rapid and uncontrolled releases of confined water.

The failure of the dam may be caused either due to bad workmanship or due to faulty design or due the occurrence of unanticipated floods. Luckily, these disasters have been comparatively rare in this century. Dams used to give away in olden times, but due to engineering advancement in modern times their failure has been considerably reduced taking care of design, keeping in view the various forces which are going to face, proper and rational design, good supervision and constant vigil and watch during maintenance periods ensures their safety. The Boulder Dam on Colorado River in U.S.A can not fail in one attempt, how furiously these river may try to move their foundations. But sometimes we have to pay for this confidence with tragedies.
Malpasset Dam
Malpasset Dam

The "Reyran" river flowing well few hundred meters below the dam.
The "Reyran" river flowing well few hundred meters below the dam.

In 1954 the Malpasset Dam, a 200 feet high arch dam on the Reyran river, was completed. This dam failed in December 1956 causing 421 persons to die in floods. This was due to failure of foundation.
Vega de Tera Dam
Vega de Tera Dam
A very confident dam called Vega de Tera Dam in Spain failed in January 1959. The town Rivaldelago was fattened. Telephone poles were snapped like matchsticks. With in moments, 123 villages were drowned. Several hundred luckier ones were saved, but were rendered homeless. This time this dam was not built strong enough to bear the full weight of its intended reservoir. Heavy rains wrecked it.
Vega de Tera Dam
Vega de Tera Dam
Sometimes excessive and unanticipated earthquakes may result failure to a dam. In 1968 earthquake, the Koyna Dam in india was at the verge of failure. The engineers saved that dam by toiling hard day and neight.

Shakidor Dam Brust

The other failures are South Fork Dam due to spillway design error, Shakidor Dam due to extreme rainfall and Dale Dike reservoir, Taum Sauk pumped storage plant due to human, computer or design error.

Leading Cause of Dam Failure

a) Hydraulic failures

More than one-third of all dam failures have been attributes to these causes. These type of failure may occur due to the following reasons:

1) Overtopping

When water levels rise rapidly and without adequate warning due to flash floods, heavy rains, a landslide in the reservoir that creates a tsunami, or if a dam upstream collapses, overtopping occurs and rise in level of level of a reservoir exceeding the capacity or height of the dam. If the spillways become blocked with debris, like silt, mud or trees, or the spillway gates are not operated properly and water can not be released, there is a danger that the water level in the reservoir will rise higher than the crest of the dam and spill over resulting overtopping.

2) Erosion of Upstream Face

Wind produced waves near the top water surface and try to notch out the soil from the upstream face and may even, sometime cause the slip of upstream slope.

3) Cracking Due to Frost Action

The upper portion of dam may subject to heaving and cracking of soil due to frost action with dangerous seepage and consequent failure.

4) Erosion of Downstream Face by Gully Formation

The erosive action on downstream face of moving water from heavy rainfall, may lead to formation of gullies on the downstream face, ultimately leading to the dam failure.

b) Foundation Defects

This failure is responsible for one-third of all dam failure of whole world. The main cause of concrete dam failure is a problem with foundation. Dams built on slopes must be properly engineered to avoid issues with instability or landslides. Only the weight of a dam structures has an impact on the ground underneath. If this weight is not properly taken into account in the engineering of the dam, the ground underneath can settle unequally and compromise the foundation. Any event causing the movement of a foundation, such as earthquake, can also result failure of the dam’s foundation. High uplift pressure and uncontrolled foundation seepage can also lead the dam foundation to failure.

c) Seepage Failure

The semi-permeable dam like embankment type can be failed when too much seeps or leaks through the structure. Controlled seepage or limited uniform seepage is inevitable in all earth dams and ordinarily it does not produce any harm. Uncontrolled or concentrated seepage through the dam body or through its foundation results piping. Piping is the progressive erosion and subsequent removal of the soil grains from with in the body of the dam or the foundation of the dam. More than one-fifth of all failure of dam occur because of these reasons.

1) Piping Through Foundation

Water, through the foundation of dam, may start seeping at a huge rate when highly permeable cavities or fissures or strata of coarse sand or gravel are available in the foundation of the dam. This concentrated flow at a high gradient, may erode the soil. This leads to increase flow of water and soil, ultimately resulting in a rush of water and soil, thereby creating hollows below the foundation. The dam may sink down into hollow so formed, causing its failure.
Piping Through Foundation

2) Piping Through the Dam Body

When the concentrated flow channels get developed in the body of the dam, soil may be removed in the same manner as was explained in the foundation piping, leading to the formation of hollows in the dam body, and subsequent subsidence of the dam. These flow channels may develop due to faulty construction, insufficient compaction, cracks developed in embankment due to formation of settlement, shrinkage cracks, animal burrows etc.
Piping Through the Dam Body
4) Armed Conflict

The dams creates dangers in wars, especially in modern atomic age. The resultant failure of such a dam will create catastrophes, but also it will get contaminated by radioactivity from which there could be no escape.

This is an important point which results stress on the host of the dam. In World War II, British Royal Air Force Dambusters operate raid on Germany, in which three German dams were selected to breached in order to have an impact on German infrastructure and manufacturing and power capabilities deriving from Ruhr and Eder River.

To protect possible destruction on the civilian population and the environment, the rules of International Humanitarian Law ( IHL) are made and dams are defined as object not to be attacked. During armed conflict, dam is to be considered as an “ installation containing dangerous forces”. A protective sign consisting of three bright orange circles placed on the same axis is provided to facilitate the identification.

5) Other Reasons

Dams which are improperly maintained or built with inadequate materials or unsound design can result in structural weakness that lead to catastrophic dam failure.

Dam failure

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