The recent catastrophic flooding in Libya, resulting from the failure of two dams, has drawn attention to the international problem of aging and ill-maintained dams. Thousands of people have died, many are missing, and tens of thousands have been displaced due to the dam collapses. These dams, initially constructed in the 1970s, had reportedly not been maintained since 2002.
According to experts, most of the world’s large dams were built between 1950 and 1985, and many are now approaching or surpassing their safe age limit of around 50 years. A 2021 U.N. report assessed over 50,000 large dams globally, revealing that many are older than 50 years and increasingly at risk of failure. This issue extends to the United States, which has the second-highest number of large dams in the world, with an average age of 65 years.
The aging infrastructure of dams, which serve vital purposes such as providing drinking water, irrigation, flood control, and electricity, is a worldwide concern. Neglected maintenance and structural issues have accumulated over the years. Water’s erosive force can impact both concrete and embankment dams, with the latter being more vulnerable to degradation.
Regular maintenance, reinforcement, and retrofitting can extend a dam’s safe operation past 100 years, but many dams do not receive routine repairs. In the U.S. alone, making recommended fixes to most dams is estimated to cost $157.5 billion.
Global efforts are needed to address this growing problem, including proactive investments in dam maintenance, early-warning systems, and emergency planning. The recent catastrophe in Libya serves as a stark reminder of the potential consequences of neglecting aging infrastructure.