An earth-shattering event?

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In what may turn out to be the mother of all cautionary tales for development economics, geologists around the world are beginning to suspect that a large dam project in southern China may have been the triggering event for the devastating 2008 earthquake which rocked the Sichuan region of China, claiming 80,000 lives, including thousands of school children trapped in their collapsing (and often poorly constructed) school buildings.

According to the NY Times: "A Columbia University scientist who studied the quake has said that it may have been triggered by the weight of 320 million tons of water in the Zipingpu Reservoir less than a mile from a well-known major fault. His conclusions, presented to the American Geophysical Union in December, coincide with a new finding by Chinese geophysicists that the dam caused significant seismic changes before the earthquake."

Apparently Chinese planners ignored warnings about the dam's potential influence on seismic stability. If true, the revelation only adds to the list of failures bedeviling Beijing's legitimacy among a vast populace growing more restive by the week.

The moral of the story? Perhaps much derided environmental impact studies, whether conducted in China or closer to home, should be taken a little more seriously before the beginning of major development projects—particularly those with catastrophic potential, however unlikely they may appear when the boys are poring over the blueprints. Yes, I am talking to you, neo-nuclear power proponents everywhere. Let's not forget that all the purported advantages and benefits of nuclear power would evaporate in a nanosecond after a single major nuke incident. Just ask the thousands of people who used to live near a place called Chernobyl or closer to home, anyone old enough to remember wondering how far NYC was from TMI.