July 2002     Back t

Gravity  Dams  and  Retaining  Walls

July 2002     Back to Bridges    Back to Home Page | © 2016 Brantacan | Find Us on Facebook |


In a plan view a gravity dam looks like a beam holding back the water.  But for any but a very narrow valley this would not work.

This dam has both gravity and arch action, though with this width and with the type of local rock, it could not have been built purely as an arch dam.

Here are pictures of the beautiful Slap Savica in the Triglav National Park, Slovenija.  The dam has only slight curvature, and probably acts mainly as a gravity dam.

The vertical cross-section suggests that a gravity dam is rather like a cantilever.  It is held to the valley floor by gravity.

It is very important that all water be excluded from underneath a gravity dam.  A boat can in principle float in a cavity that exceeds its own dimensions by only a minute distance, and a thin layer of water can affect a dam.

The pressure of water on the surface of an object can cancel some of its weight.  In a dam this could result in uplift and overturning.

It is very important for any object that the line of thrust should meet the ground well within the base area.  Otherwise there is a danger near one edge that the pressure on the ground might be reduced to nothing.  In the case of a dam, the resulting cracks would let water in, which would tend to enlarge the cracks.  The uplift from the water pressure in the cracks reduces the effective weight of the dam.  A dam should satisfy the pressure condition throughout the filling of the reservoir, and not just when it is full.


The Middle Third

Let's look into dams a little more.  A gravity dam is a wall to hold back water.  Many gardens on slopes have walls to hold back soil at a higher level.  These walls are dams for soil.  The soil exerts a pressure, rather like water, though it is not a fluid.  Soil mechanics therefore differs from fluid mechanics.  

The diagram below represents five walls built with differing amounts of tilt.  Based on the centre of gravity lying over the base, the three at left are stable, one is balanced on a corner, and the right-hand one would fall over.

This criterion is not actually adequate.  We can sense that by looking at the diagram.  What is the physical factor that our senses are responding to?

Let's look at the pressure on the base of each wall, shown by the white areas in the diagrams below.

The pressure distribution at left is uniform.  For the fourth wall which is poised on one corner, there is no pressure at all, except at this corner.  In practice, of course, there wouldn't be an infinite pressure on that point.  The ground would give a little, resulting in a narrow strip on which the pressure would fall.  In practice the wall would fall over, because the depression in the ground at the corner only would allow the wall to tilt past the angle of stability.

The two triangles represent the intermediate cases.  In the second wall from the left, the centre of gravity is one third of the distance from one end of the base.  The pressure falls to zero at the other end.  In the middle diagram, only half the base feels any pressure at all.  The rest is in tension.  You can feel such effects on your feet if you lean forwards, backwards or sideways.

Now we have a criterion for stability.  There should be pressure at all points on the base, otherwise a part of the connection will be in tension, and may separate.  So the centre of pressure must lie within the middle third of the base, a restrictive rule.  In fact, this rule restricts the centre of pressure to one ninth of the base area.


Now we can look at a wall or dam that has to restrain soil or water.

We could build a leaning wall and then allow the soil to push against it.  Without the soil we would have a pressure distribution like the white triangle, and if we did our sums right we could end up with a uniform pressure distribution like the one at right.  

The wall would be rather dangerous before the soil was allowed to push it, and the variable properties of soil, including different amounts of water, would make exact calculation hard to do. It is better to build a wall having one face vertical and one with batter, as shown below.

Here is a simple retaining wall, connected to a foundation with a keel under the toe of the wall.

This wall is stable during construction, and does the job well afterwards.

But a large gravity dam costing a great deal of money must be designed using stress calculations, so that the cheapest reliable structure can be built.

Let's look at the design of a dam, using as little maths as we can get away with.


We know that the liquid pressure at the top is zero, so the dam can come to a point.  It obviously has be thicker further down.  Let's take the simplest case of a wall with a straight slope with batter.

What else do we know?  If the liquid has zero density the dam needs no thickness.  If the liquid has infinite density the dam has to be infinitely thick.  What if the density of liquid and concrete are the same?  We might guess that the slope would be 45 degrees, but we could easily be wrong.  We could even guess that if the ratio of densities of concrete and water is R, the angle A of the dam is given by R = tan(A).

The other consideration is that the dam must be stable at all stages of construction and filling, so let's see it before the water has started to enter.

The centre of gravity of the triangle is at one third of the base line.

So the dam is right on the criterion for good practice, as the centre of force is on the edge of the middle third.  The variation of pressure is shown by the white triangle below.

In order to place the centre of pressure within the middle third, we can add a rectangular block to the face of the dam.  There is a bonus.  It will be possible to build a road across the top of the dam, providing a free bridge across the valley.  At the very least it will provide a crossing for workers at the dam, which might incorporate a hydro-electric power plant.


Let's continue for the moment with the simple triangle, and try to find out how deep it must be when the reservoir is full.

t the very least, the dam must be thick enough to obtain the pressure condition shown by the white triangle at the bottom.  The centre of pressure has retreated to the back end of the middle third.

In practice we would make the dam a little thicker to provide a safety factor.

What is the critical thickness?  Can we find out without doing any maths?


We will assume that the concrete is 2.3 times as dense as water.

In the minimal configuration, the pressure of the water, represented by the thin triangle, has to change the upper white triangle into the lower one.  

The distribution of pressure is completely reversed.  The position of maximum pressure moves from the heel to the toe of the dam, just as would happen to a person who is pushed from the back.

An actual dam includes extra material as a safety factor, so that nowhere does the base pressure become zero at any time during filling.

The simple diagram below represents the minimal possible dam, surrounded by extra material as a safety factor, resting on a concrete foundation, with a vertical wall symbolising the extensive grouting operations that often accompany the building of a dam.  Grout is injected into rock below and at the sides of the site of the dam, to strengthen and waterproof the rock.

The addition of a massive quantity of water into a valley produces great changes to the stresses in the rock.  Water seeping into that rock under great pressure can lubricate rocks and destabilise mountainsides that have been apparently stable for centuries.  In 1963, a part of Mont Toc slid into the Vajont reservoir, displacing a colossal wave of water over the dam.  Over 2000 people were killed.  The thin overhanging dam survived, but was rendered useless, as the reservoir was almost full of debris.




This picture shows the effect of water getting under a dam.  If the weight and shape of the dam are unsuitable, and cracks appear under the heel, water can get in.  It exerts a pressure on all the surfaces that it wets.  The force on the dam is upwards.  The effect is to reduce the effect of the weight of the dam, as shown by the next picture  It is as if a piece of the dam is missing.  Now the cracks are likely to extend, because the effective weight has been reduced.  The effect is cumulative.

If the density of the concrete is 2.3 times the density of water, then the effective density of the undercut part is only 2.3 - 1 = 1.3, which is 1.3 / 2.3 of the original, that is 0.57.  This is symbolised in the diagram by the missing piece.

These simple ideas show that a gravity dam and its environment must be prepared with the utmost care.  The consequences of a failed dam can be catastrophic.

The next diagram shows the effective moment produced by a minimal triangular dam as a crack progresses under it.


If the dam had a safety factor the effect would be less, but any crack under a dam is intolerable if it can propagate.  In any case, if the dam becomes effectively disconnected from the ground, the moment it produces is irrelevant, as it will simply be pushed downstream.

Arch dams and cupola dams derive their stability by thrusting against the sides of the valley.  Effectively they use the the surrounding rock as a part of the structure.  Such dams are usually lighter than gravity dams.  A similar point is made in the pages about arch bridges and suspension bridges, where they are compared with bridges which only rest on the ground, making no horizontal demands upon it, though even a gravity dam does of course produce a horizontal shear force on the ground.

Even after a dam is complete, the effects are not over.  As the reservoir fills, a great weight rests on the ground below.  Big deep reservoirs of water probably constitute the greatest artificial weights ever assembled.  In some cases, marked seismic activities have been observed in areas with no record of such effects.

See Top Ten dam sites.

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It is not easy to find photographs of dams that are close to failure, so here is a picture of a garden wall that is failing under soil pressure, and is temporarily reprieved only because it is restrained by the electrical junction box.  Soil behaves in a more complicated way than either liquids or solids, though at least we don't have to worry about turbulence and leakage.  What do you think is the angle of the wall?  Using a protractor it seems to be about 11e.  Does it look more or less than this?  The second picture shows that the retaining wall of a railway embankment has moved, opening up a crack from top to bottom.  Luckily the crack has no effect on the actual bridge.

Soil is not much of a structural material, yet on the beach, children of all ages manage to build quite intricate things, including bridges, from soil's least promising manifestation, sand, which works quite well when damp.  Precision moulds can also be made from sand.

This is a cellular retaining wall with batter.  It is around four metres high.  Such a wall provides drainage, and shelter for plants and small animals.

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