Articles | Volume 12, issue 10
Research article
02 Oct 2012
Research article |  | 02 Oct 2012

Simulating dam-breach flood scenarios of the Tangjiashan landslide dam induced by the Wenchuan Earthquake

X. Fan, C. X. Tang, C. J. van Westen, and D. Alkema

Abstract. Floods from failures of landslide dams can pose a hazard to people and property downstream, which have to be rapidly assessed and mitigated in order to reduce the potential risk. The Tangjiashan landslide dam induced by the Mw = 7.9 2008 Wenchuan earthquake had impounded the largest lake in the earthquake affected area with an estimated volume of 3 × 108 m3, and the potential catastrophic dam breach posed a serious threat to more than 2.5 million people in downstream towns and Mianyang city, located 85 km downstream. Chinese authorities had to evacuate parts of the city until the Tangjiashan landslide dam was artificially breached by a spillway, and the lake was drained. We propose an integrated approach to simulate the dam-breach floods for a number of possible scenarios, to evaluate the severity of the threat to Mianyang city. Firstly, the physically-based BREACH model was applied to predict the flood hydrographs at the dam location, which were calibrated with observational data of the flood resulting from the artificial breaching. The output hydrographs from this model were inputted into the 1-D–2-D SOBEK hydrodynamic model to simulate the spatial variations in flood parameters. The simulated flood hydrograph, peak discharge and peak arrival time at the downstream towns fit the observations. Thus this approach is capable of providing reliable predictions for the decision makers to determine the mitigation plans. The sensitivity analysis of the BREACH model input parameters reveals that the average grain size, the unit weight and porosity of the dam materials are the most sensitive parameters. The variability of the dam material properties causes a large uncertainty in the estimation of the peak flood discharge and peak arrival time, but has little influence on the flood inundation area and flood depth downstream. The effect of cascading breaches of smaller dams downstream of the Tangjiashan dam was insignificant, due to their rather small volumes, which were only 2% of the volume of the Tangjiashan lake. The construction of the spillway was proven to have played a crucial role in reducing the dam-breach flood, because all the other natural breach scenarios would have caused the flooding of the downstream towns and parts of Mianyang city. However, in retrospect improvements on the spillway design and the evacuation planning would have been possible. The dam-break flood risk will be better controlled by reducing the spillway channel gradient and the porosity of the coating of the channel bottom. The experience and lessons we learned from the Tangjiashan case will contribute to improving the hazard mitigation and risk management planning of similar events in future.