The Brumadinho dam collapse in Brazil has shocked the world, ranking as one of the worst hydraulic infrastructure failures. An earth-wall dam collapsed releasing run-off water from a large mine operated by Vale.
110 are confirmed dead and authorities suggest little hope for the remaining 238 missing people who were likely caught in the rapid flow of water and mud released by the dam. The collapse also released 12 million cubic metres of mud filled with toxic minerals including arsenic.
This disaster is not without precedent.
In 2015, another earth dam wall broke (pictured above) in Mariana, Brazil, this time involving a joint venture between BHP Biliton, a European-based mining conglomerate and Vale. The collapse killed 19 people, releasing 43.7 million cubic meters of water.
Meanwhile in 2018, an earth dam collapsed in Kenya. It was built to provide irrigation for rose farming. Tragically, this led to the destruction of a school and the death of 41 people.
These dam failures are connected by their construction from earth, and their erection by private companies for commercial activities. The degree of regulation varies between the projects (being higher in Brazil than in Kenya), although regulations appear to have been circumvented in each case. The companies differ also in their size and global reach.
Each of the cases underlines the potential danger of dams. Manipulating water is inherently risky, with any weakness in the infrastructure leading to potentially catastrophic outcomes. Dams therefore need close assessment and highly professionalised engineers. Regulation must be rigorously applied in privately constructed dams, where profit maximisation can squeeze budgets for quality dam construction and maintenance.
Hopefully the spate of recent dam collapses will remind governments and companies globally, and in Brazil and Kenya in particular, of the importance of dam regulation, the value of investing in maintenance and high quality engineering.