Page last updated at 16:53 GMT, Wednesday, 28 May 2008 17:53 UK

Quake lakes risk 'slurry tsunami'

By Jude Sheerin
BBC News

Annotated image of Tangjiashan lake and Beichuan
Some 1.3m people are at risk of flooding if the quake lake bursts

China's scramble to drain the rapidly-rising quake lake at Tangjiashan before it can burst is a nerve-jangling race against time.

Some 1.3 million people are threatened by flooding if the banks are breached, warns geology professor Zhaoyin Wang, of Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.

It would unleash a wall of rock, soil and water about 20 metres (66ft) high tumbling down the valley, he told the BBC News website.

The deluge would destroy everything in its path, potentially dwarfing the death toll from the 12 May quake in disaster-hit Sichuan province.

The flash flood would reach Mianyang city, 100km (62 miles) away, in just four hours, wiping out a number of towns and villages en route, said Prof Wang.

'Topographically hellish'

This month's 7.9 magnitude tremor spawned 34 so-called quake lakes, according to the International Association of Hydraulic Engineering and Research expert.

The vast pools of water were created when the earthquake triggered landslides down plunging valleys, clogging rivers and turning them into fast-rising lakes.

Map of Sichuan
One more aftershock could suddenly transform this incoherent mass into a devastating wall of liquid slurry
Dr Stephen Edwards
Hazard Research Centre

Twenty-eight quake lakes are at risk of bursting, according to Chinese state media agency Xinhua.

But the one at Tangjiashan - on the Jianjiang river above the town of Beichuan - is the most precarious.

Aftershocks and heavy rainfall make the mammoth round-the-clock task faced by engineers and troops on the steep valley slopes even more hazardous.

The delicate, tortuous work involves heavy machinery gingerly shifting debris from the dam, and engineers blasting dynamite to carefully punch holes in the mountain of rubble and soil - although experts warn this risks further destabilising the structure.

Nearly 160,000 people in the disaster zone have already been evacuated in case the Tangjiashan quake lake bursts.

"This is the most challenging terrain possible to effect an aid and rescue operation," said another geologist, Dr Stephen Edwards, from Benfield University College London's Hazard Research Centre.

"It is topographically hellish, a logistical nightmare. These dams are essentially weak, loose piles of debris under huge pressure from the river water building up behind.

"It's a very vulnerable situation. One more aftershock could suddenly transform this incoherent mass into a devastating wall of liquid slurry.

More machinery flown in to drain Tangjiashan quake lake on 26 May 2008
Troops risk being buried by more landslides or the quake lake

"It would rush off downstream, bulldozing and burying everything in its path."

It is estimated the water will reach the top of the 82 metre (270 ft) high dam at Tangjiashan within two weeks.

Troops and engineers are racing to carve a 500 metre (1,640 ft) channel out of the landscape and divert the water towards the Fujiang river.

They aim to complete the giant sluice and begin draining the 300 million cubic metre capacity lake within 10 days.

"Once the water begins to flow over the top of the dam there's nothing you can do to stop it," said seismologist Dr Alex Densmore, of Durham University's Institute of Hazard and Risk Research.

'Catastrophic failure'

He said it could then be just a matter of time until the dam of landslide debris suffers a "catastrophic failure".

That part of central China is seamed with sedimentary rock - limestone, sandstone and mudstone - which is much weaker than the crystalline rocks, such as granite, found in the European Alps, according to Dr Densmore.

Villager flees the Tangjiashan quake lake on 28 May 2008
Tens of thousands are fleeing the disaster zone

Much of it has already been undermined by many large earthquakes in the "tectonically very active" area over the past 10,000 years, he said.

He predicted further huge aftershocks, possibly up to magnitude 7, rattling the quake lake valleys.

And in a sobering reminder to those in Sichuan province, he added: "There are a large number of active faults in the area, and we know very little about most of them.

"So the likelihood of another large earthquake in the region is no less than it was before 12 May."

Little wonder then that Premier Wen Jiabao says he regards draining the swelling quake lakes at China's ground zero as the nation's most urgent task.


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