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Dam Earthquakes

For the past twenty years I’ve traveled to Chile nearly every year. I was initially drawn by the long, skinny country’s incredible wealth and variety of natural beauty: Super-dry deserts, the snow-peaked Andes, a wild, 3,000-mile long ocean coast, the bosque forests of the south, windy Patagonia and its southern icecap. (Lay Chile over the northern hemisphere and it would run from roughly Puerto Vallarta to Juneau, with all of the same landscapes). Both hemispheres share similar geology too. Of the ten most powerful earthquakes recorded, four have taken place in Chile, including the biggest ever, in 1960, registering 9.5 … about one thousand times more powerful than the horrific tremblor that shook the center of the country this past weekend.

Ralco Dam, on the Rio Bio Bio

Ralco Dam, on the Rio Bio Bio

I first went to Chile for adventure, running some of its wildest rivers, climbing its snowiest peaks, trudging across its high desert. But at the exact time I started visiting, in 1990, the country was changing incredibly thanks to the popular vote that ousted General Augusto Pinochet. Between adventures I started tracking down the most intriguing people in the country and spending time with them, pen and pad in had, documenting the evolution from dictatorship back to democracy. Given its relatively small population and the fact that only a couple hundred families then ran the country, it was pretty easy to meet the best and brightest, many of who are still my peers, travel mates and friends.

I’ve been conversing with several of them via email in recent days; most live in the capital of Santiago, where more than one-third of the population lives. So far, so good, everyone accounted for. But I’ve driven the length of the country a couple times and know the towns most damaged, including Talca, Lota and Constitucion. While better built to fend off quaking than Port au Prince, these are still poor towns where building has boomed in recent years and there are already suggestions that not enough was done to prepare the new infrastructure for this inevitability.

One of the things that drew me most to Chile initially was its big rivers. I was peripherally involved in the last days of the fight to keep dams off the Rio Bio Bio (a losing cause) and moreso in continuing fights to keep dams off the Patagonian rivers like the Futaleufu and Baker (for a few years I owned land on the Fu). I’ve been wondering since the earth shook violently the other day how the big dams on the Bio Bio built in the 1990s – at Ralco and Pangue – survived the quake, since they are not far from its epi-center. They must not have cracked too seriously, since there’s been no report of leaks. But big dams built near fault lines are always at risk. I’ve traveled on the Yangtze in China as well, watched its powerful utilities ram dams through the system, displacing millions and had identical concerns I have about Chile: What if an earthquake shakes, rattles and rolls one of these man-made concrete structures to cracking. Millions will be impacted, in a very bad way. I’d be very curious to read the inside reports being written right now by Chile’s big utility company, Endesa, about just how at-risk those big dams on the Bio Bio are.