AskDefine | Define dams

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  1. Plural of dam


  1. third-person singular of dam

Extensive Definition

A dam is a barrier that divides waters. Dams generally serve the primary purpose of retaining water, while other structures such as floodgates, levees, and dikes are used to prevent water flow into specific land regions. The tallest dam in the world is the 300 meter high Nurek Dam in Tajikistan.


The word dam can be traced back to Middle English, and before that, from Middle Dutch, as seen in the names of many old cities.
Some of the grandest and largest dams were constructed in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Dams in Yodha Wewa and Parakrama Samudra of Sri Lanka were the largest until the 20th Century . As per Needham, Abhaya Wewa is the oldest reservoir that was made by the use of a dam, which has been dated to 300 BC. ( Most of the first Dams were built in Mesopotamia up to 7,000 years ago. These were used to control the water level, for Mesopotamia's weather affected the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and could be quite unpredictable. The earliest recorded dam is believed to have been on the Sadd Al-Kafara at Wadi Al-Garawi, which is located about 25 kilometers south of Cairo, and built around 2600 B.C. It was destroyed by heavy rain shortly afterwards.
The Kallanai is a massive dam of unhewn stone, over 300 meters long, 4.5 meters high and 20 meters (60 ft) wide,
In the Netherlands, a low-lying country, dams were often applied to block rivers in order to regulate the water level and to prevent the sea from entering the marsh lands. Such dams often marked the beginning of a town or city because it was easy to cross the river at such a place, and often gave rise to the respective place's names in Dutch. For instance the Dutch capital Amsterdam (old name Amstelredam) started with a dam through the river Amstel in the late 12th Century , and Rotterdam started with a dam through the river Rotte, a minor tributary of the Nieuwe Maas. The central square of Amsterdam, believed to be the original place of the 800 year old dam, still carries the name Dam Square or simply the Dam.

Types of dams

Dams can be formed by human agency, natural causes, or even by the intervention of wildlife such as beavers. Man-made dams are typically classified according to their size (height), intended purpose or structure.

By size

International standards define large dams as higher than 15 meters and major dams as over 150 meters in height.

By purpose

Intended purposes include providing water for irrigation or town or city water supply, improving navigation, creating a reservoir of water to supply industrial uses, generating hydroelectric power, creating recreation areas or habitat for fish and wildlife, flood control and containing effluent from industrial sites such as mines or factories. Few dams serve all of these purposes but some multi-purpose dams serve more than one.
A saddle dam is an auxiliary dam constructed to confine the reservoir created by a primary dam either to permit a higher water elevation and storage or to limit the extent of a reservoir for increased efficiency. An auxiliary dam is constructed in a low spot or saddle through which the reservoir would otherwise escape. On occasion, a reservoir is contained by a similar structure called a dike to prevent inundation of nearby land. Dikes are commonly used for reclamation of arable land from a shallow lake. This is similar to a levee, which is a wall or embankment built along a river or stream to protect adjacent land from flooding.
An overflow dam is designed to be over topped. A weir is a type of small overflow dam that can be used for flow measurement.
A check dam is a small dam designed to reduce flow velocity and control soil erosion. Conversely, a wing dam is a structure that only partly restricts a waterway, creating a faster channel that resists the accumulation of sediment.
A dry dam is a dam designed to control flooding. It normally holds back no water and allows the channel to flow freely, except during periods of intense flow that would otherwise cause flooding downstream.
A diversionary dam is a structure designed to divert all or a portion of the flow of a river from its natural course.

By structure

Based on structure and material used, dams are classified as timber dams, arch-gravity dams, embankment dams or masonry dams, with several subtypes.

Masonry dams

Arch dams
see also Geotechnical engineering In the arch dam, stability is obtained by a combination of arch and gravity action. If the upstream face is vertical the entire weight of the dam must be carried to the foundation by gravity, while the distribution of the normal hydrostatic pressure between vertical cantilever and arch action will depend upon the stiffness of the dam in a vertical and horizontal direction. When the upstream face is sloped the distribution is more complicated. The normal component of the weight of the arch ring may be taken by the arch action, while the normal hydrostatic pressure will be distributed as described above. For this type of dam, firm reliable supports at the abutments (either buttress or canyon side wall) are more important. The most desirable place for an arch dam is a narrow canyon with steep side walls composed of sound rock. The safety of an arch dam is dependent on the strength of the side wall abutments, hence not only should the arch be well seated on the side walls but also the character of the rock should be carefully inspected.
Two types of single-arch dams are in use, namely the constant-angle and the constant-radius dam. The constant-radius type employs the same face radius at all elevations of the dam, which means that as the channel grows narrower towards the bottom of the dam the central angle subtended by the face of the dam becomes smaller. Jones Falls Dam, in Canada, is a constant radius dam. In a constant-angle dam, also known as a variable radius dam, this subtended angle is kept a constant and the variation in distance between the abutments at various levels are taken care of by varying the radii. Constant-radius dams are much less common than constant-angle dams. Parker Dam is a constant-angle arch dam.
A similar type is the double-curvature or thin-shell dam. Wildhorse Dam near Mountain City, Nevada in the United States is an example of the type. This method of construction minimizes the amount of concrete necessary for construction but transmits large loads to the foundation and abutments. The appearance is similar to a single-arch dam but with a distinct vertical curvature to it as well lending it the vague appearance of a concave lens as viewed from downstream.
The multiple-arch dam consists of a number of single-arch dams with concrete buttresses as the supporting abutments. The multiple-arch dam does not require as many buttresses as the hollow gravity type, but requires good rock foundation because the buttress loads are heavy.
Gravity dams
In a gravity dam, stability is secured by making it of such a size and shape that it will resist overturning, sliding and crushing at the toe. The dam will not overturn provided that the moment around the turning point, caused by the water pressure is smaller than the moment caused by the weight of the dam. This is the case if the resultant force of water pressure and weight falls within the base of the dam. However, in order to prevent tensile stress at the upstream face and excessive compressive stress at the downstream face, the dam cross section is usually designed so that the resultant falls within the middle at all elevations of the cross section (the core). For this type of dam, impervious foundations with high bearing strength are essential.
When situated on a suitable site, a gravity dam inspires more confidence in the layman than any other type; it has mass that lends an atmosphere of permanence, stability, and safety. When built on a carefully studied foundation with stresses calculated from completely evaluated loads, the gravity dam probably represents the best developed example of the art of dam building. This is significant because the fear of flood is a strong motivator in many regions, and has resulted in gravity dams being built in some instances where an arch dam would have been more economical.
Gravity dams are classified as "solid" or "hollow." The solid form is the more widely used of the two, though the hollow dam is frequently more economical to construct. Gravity dams can also be classified as "overflow" (spillway) and "non-overflow." Grand Coulee Dam is a solid gravity dam and Itaipu Dam is a hollow gravity dam. A gravity dam can be combined with an arch dam, an arch-gravity dam, for areas with massive amounts of water flow but less material available for a purely gravity dam.

Arch-gravity dams

Embankment dams

Embankment dams are made from compacted earth, and have two main types, rock-fill and earth-fill dams. Embankment dams rely on their weight to hold back the force of water, like the gravity dams made from concrete.
Rock-fill dams
Rock-fill dams are embankments of compacted free-draining granular earth with an impervious zone. The earth utilized often contains a large percentage of large particles hence the term rock-fill. The impervious zone may be on the upstream face and made of masonry, concrete, plastic membrane, steel sheet piles, timber or other material. The impervious zone may also be within the embankment in which case it is referred to as a core. In the instances where clay is utilized as the impervious material the dam is referred to as a composite dam. To prevent internal erosion of clay into the rock fill due to seepage forces, the core is separated using a filter. Filters are specifically graded soil designed to prevent the migration of fine grain soil particles. When suitable material is at hand, transportation is minimized leading to cost savings during construction. Rock-fill dams are resistant to damage from earthquakes. However, inadequate quality control during construction can lead to poor compaction and sand in the embankment which can lead to liquefaction of the rock-fill during an earthquake. Liquefaction potential can be reduced by keeping susceptible material from being saturated, and by providing adequate compaction during construction. An example of a rock-fill dam is New Melones Dam in California.
Earth-fill dams
Earth-fill dams, also called earthen, rolled-earth or simply earth dams, are constructed as a simple embankment of well compacted earth. A homogeneous rolled-earth dam is entirely constructed of one type of material but may contain a drain layer to collect seep water. A zoned-earth dam has distinct parts or zones of dissimilar material, typically a locally plentiful shell with a watertight clay core. Modern zoned-earth embankments employ filter and drain zones to collect and remove seep water and preserve the integrity of the downstream shell zone. An outdated method of zoned earth dam construction utilized a hydraulic fill to produce a watertight core. Rolled-earth dams may also employ a watertight facing or core in the manner of a rock-fill dam. An interesting type of temporary earth dam occasionally used in high latitudes is the frozen-core dam, in which a coolant is circulated through pipes inside the dam to maintain a watertight region of permafrost within it.
Because earthen dams can be constructed from materials found on-site or nearby, they can be very cost-effective in regions where the cost of producing or bringing in concrete would be prohibitive. This makes it better for the environment too.
Asphalt-Concrete Core
A third type of embankment dam is built with asphalt concrete core. The majority of such dams are built with rock and/or gravel as the main fill material. Almost 100 dams of this design have now been built world-wide since the first such dam was completed in 1962. All asphalt-concrete core dams built so far have an excellent performance record. The type of asphalt used is a viscoelastic-plastic material that can adjust to the movements and deformations imposed on the embankment as a whole, and to settlements in the foundation. The flexible properties of the asphalt make such dams especially suited in earthquake regions.


A cofferdam is a (usually temporary) barrier constructed to exclude water from an area that is normally submerged. Made commonly of wood, concrete or steel sheet piling, cofferdams are used to allow construction on the foundation of permanent dams, bridges, and similar structures. When the project is completed, the cofferdam may be demolished or removed. See also causeway and retaining wall. Common uses for cofferdams include construction and repair of off shore oil platforms. In such cases the cofferdam is fabricated from sheet steel and welded into place under water. Air is pumped into the space, displacing the water allowing a dry work environment below the surface. Upon completion the cofferdam is usually deconstructed unless the area requires continuous maintenance.

Timber dams

Timber dams were widely used in the early part of the industrial revolution and in frontier areas due to ease and speed of construction. Rarely built in modern times by humans due to relatively short lifespan and limited height to which they can be built, timber dams must be kept constantly wet in order to maintain their water retention properties and limit deterioration by rot, similar to a barrel. The locations where timber dams are most economical to build are those where timber is plentiful, cement is costly or difficult to transport, and either a low head diversion dam is required or longevity is not an issue. Timber dams were once numerous, especially in the North American west, but most have failed, been hidden under earth embankments or been replaced with entirely new structures. Two common variations of timber dams were the crib and the plank.
Timber crib dams were erected of heavy timbers or dressed logs in the manner of a log house and the interior filled with earth or rubble. The heavy crib structure supported the dam's face and the weight of the water.
Timber plank dams were more elegant structures that employed a variety of construction methods utilizing heavy timbers to support a water retaining arrangement of planks.
Very few timber dams are still in use. Timber, in the form of sticks, branches and withes, is the basic material used by beavers, often with the addition of mud or stones.

Steel dams

A steel dam is a type of dam briefly experimented with in around the turn of the 19th-20th Century which uses steel plating (at an angle) and load bearing beams as the structure. Intended as permanent structures, steel dams were an (arguably failed) experiment to determine if a construction technique could be devised that was cheaper than masonry, concrete or earthworks, but sturdier than timber crib dams.

Beaver dams

Beavers create dams primarily out of mud and sticks to flood a particular habitable area. By flooding a parcel of land, beavers can navigate below or near the surface and remain relatively well hidden or protected from predators. The flooded region also allows beavers access to food, especially during the winter.

Construction elements

Power generation plant

As of 2005, hydroelectric power, mostly from dams, supplies some 19% of the world's electricity, and over 63% of renewable energy. Much of this is generated by large dams, although China uses small scale hydro generation on a wide scale and is responsible for about 50% of world use of this type of power. Others such as the Berg Strait dam can help to stabilize or restore the water levels of inland lakes and seas, in this case the Aral Sea. |- !style="text-align:center"| Flood prevention | Dams such as the Blackwater dam of Webster, New Hampshire and the Delta Works are created with flood control in mind. |- !style="text-align:center"| Land reclamation | Dams (often called dykes or levees in this context) are used to prevent ingress of water to an area that would otherwise be submerged, allowing its reclamation for human use. |- !style="text-align:center"| Water diversion | See: diversion dam. |}

Siting (location)

One of the best places for building a dam is a narrow part of a deep river valley; the valley sides can then act as natural walls. The primary function of the dam's structure is to fill the gap in the natural reservoir line left by the stream channel. The sites are usually those where the gap becomes a minimum for the required storage capacity. The most economical arrangement is often a composite structure such as a masonry dam flanked by earth embankments. The current use of the land to be flooded should be dispensable.
Significant other engineering and engineering geology considerations when building a dam include:

Impact assessment

Impact is assessed in several ways: the benefits to human society arising from the dam (agriculture, water, damage prevention and power), the harm or benefits to nature and wildlife (especially fish and rare species), the impact on the geology of an area - whether the change to water flow and levels will increase or decrease stability, and the disruption to human lives (relocation, loss of archeological or cultural matters underwater).

Environmental impact

Dams affect many ecological aspects of a river. Rivers depend on the constant disturbance of a certain tolerance. Dams slow the river and this disturbance may damage or destroy this pattern of ecology. Temperature is also another problem that dams create. Rivers tend to have fairly homogeneous temperatures. Reservoirs have layered temperatures, warm on the top and cold on the bottom; in addition often it is water from the colder (lower) layer which is released downstream, and this may have a different dissolved oxygen content than before. Organisms depending upon a regular cycle of temperatures may be unable to adapt; the balance of other fauna (especially plant life and microscopic fauna) may be affected by the change of oxygen content.
Water exiting a turbine usually contains very little suspended sediment, which can lead to scouring of river beds and loss of riverbanks; for example, the daily cyclic flow variation caused by the Glen Canyon Dam was a contributor to sand bar erosion.
Older dams often lack a fish ladder, which keeps many fish from moving up stream to their natural breeding grounds, causing failure of breeding cycles or blocking of migration paths. Even the presence of a fish ladder does not always prevent a reduction in fish reaching the spawning grounds upstream. In some areas, young fish ("smolt") are transported downstream by barge during parts of the year. Turbine and power-plant designs that have a lower impact upon aquatic life are an active area of research.
A large dam can cause the loss of entire ecospheres, including endangered and undiscovered species in the area, and the replacement of the original environment by a new inland lake.
Depending upon the circumstances, a dam can either reduce or increase the net production of greenhouse gases. An increase can occur if the reservoir created by the dam itself acts as a source of substantial amounts of potent greenhouse gases (methane and carbon dioxide) due to plant material in flooded areas decaying in an anaerobic environment. According to the World Commission on Dams report, when the reservoir is relatively large and no prior clearing of forest in the flooded area was undertaken, greenhouse gas emissions from the reservoir could be higher than those of a conventional oil-fired thermal generation plant. A decrease can occur if the dam is used in place of traditional power generation, since electricity produced from hydroelectric generation does not give rise to any flue gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion (including sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide, carbon monoxide, dust, and mercury from coal).

Human social impact

The impact on human society is also significant. For example, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, is more than five times the size of the Hoover Dam (U.S.) and will create a reservoir 600 km long, to be used for hydro-power generation. Its construction required the loss of over a million people's homes and their mass relocation, the loss of many valuable archaeological and cultural sites, as well as significant ecological change.


Construction of a hydroelectric plant requires a long lead-time for site studies, hydrological studies, and environmental impact assessment, and are large scale projects by comparison to traditional power generation based upon fossil fuels. The number of sites that can be economically developed for hydroelectric production is limited; new sites tend to be far from population centers and usually require extensive power transmission lines. Hydroelectric generation can be vulnerable to major changes in the climate, including variation of rainfall, ground and surface water levels, and glacial melt, causing additional expenditure for the extra capacity to ensure sufficient power is available in low water years.
Once completed, if it is well designed and maintained, a hydroelectric power source is usually comparatively cheap and reliable. It has no fuel and low escape risk, and as a renewable energy source it is cheaper than both nuclear and wind power. It is more easily regulated to store water as needed and generate high power levels on demand, compared to wind power.

Dam failure

Dam failures are generally catastrophic if the structure is breached or significantly damaged. Routine deformation monitoring of seepage from drains in, and around, larger dams is necessary to anticipate any problems and permit remedial action to be taken before structural failure occurs. Most dams incorporate mechanisms to permit the reservoir to be lowered or even drained in the event of such problems. Another solution can be rock grouting - pressure pumping portland cement slurry into weak fractured rock.
During an armed conflict, a dam is to be considered as an "installation containing dangerous forces" due to the massive impact of a possible destruction on the civilian population and the environment. As such, it is protected by the rules of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and shall not be made the object of attack if that may cause severe losses among the civilian population. To facilitate the identification, a protective sign consisting of three bright orange circles placed on the same axis is defined by the rules of IHL.
The main causes of dam failure include spillway design error (South Fork Dam), geological instability caused by changes to water levels during filling or poor surveying (Vajont Dam, Malpasset), poor maintenance, especially of outlet pipes (Lawn Lake Dam, Val di Stava Dam collapse), extreme rainfall (Shakidor Dam), and human, computer or design error (Buffalo Creek Flood, Dale Dike Reservoir, Taum Sauk pumped storage plant).
A notable case of deliberate dam failure (prior to the above ruling) was the British Royal Air Force Dambusters raid on Germany in World War II (codenamed "Operation Chastise"), in which three German dams were selected to be breached in order to have an impact on German infrastructure and manufacturing and power capabilities deriving from the Ruhr and Eder rivers. This raid later became the basis for several films.
dams in Arabic: سد
dams in Asturian: Presa d'augua
dams in Bulgarian: Язовирна стена
dams in Catalan: Presa d'aigua
dams in Welsh: Argae
dams in Czech: Hráz (stavba)
dams in Danish: Dæmning
dams in German: Talsperre
dams in Modern Greek (1453-): Φράγμα
dams in Spanish: Presa (hidráulica)
dams in Esperanto: Akvobaraĵo
dams in Persian: سد
dams in French: Barrage
dams in Korean: 댐
dams in Indonesian: Bendungan
dams in Icelandic: Stífla
dams in Italian: Diga
dams in Hebrew: סכר
dams in Swahili (macrolanguage): Lambo
dams in Latin: Moles (agger)
dams in Lithuanian: Užtvanka
dams in Malay (macrolanguage): Empangan
dams in Dutch: Dam (waterkering)
dams in Japanese: ダム
dams in Norwegian: Demning
dams in Norwegian Nynorsk: Demning
dams in Polish: Zapora wodna
dams in Portuguese: Barragem
dams in Kölsch: Shtoudamm
dams in Romanian: Baraj
dams in Quechua: Mayu hark'a
dams in Russian: Плотина
dams in Simple English: Dam
dams in Slovenian: Jez
dams in Finnish: Pato
dams in Swedish: dammbyggnad
dams in Tamil: அணை
dams in Thai: เขื่อน
dams in Turkish: Baraj
dams in Ukrainian: Дамба
dams in Yiddish: דאם
dams in Chinese: 水坝
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