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FAILURE OF AN EARTH DAM: A CASE STUDY


By Iqbal H. Khan, 1 M. ASCE

ABSTRACT: In the semi-arid zones, seasonal variations in temperature and


moisture content are extensive. This may induce severe cracking of the core of
an earth dam, particularly in places where the soil is poorly compacted. The
winter rains often result in flash floods leading to a rapid build up of reservoir
level. Consequently, water flowing through the core has high gradients. Mod-
erately dispersive soils, in such an environment, may become highly disper-
sive. Such a mechanism of failure has been postulated on the basis of a case
study of an earth dam failure in Wadi Qattarah, Libya. Practical implications
of this failure mechanism are pointed out in relation to earth dam construction
practices in semi-arid zones.

INTRODUCTION

The Secretariat of Dams and Water Resources of Libya has recently


developed major schemes for the utilization of the country's water re-
sources and for flood protection of the cities. As part of these schemes,
two dams were constructed during 1970-72 in the Wadi Qattarah area
near the city of Benghazi. The primary purpose of these dams was flood
control, though it was also the intention to utilize the impounded water
for irrigation purposes. On December 21, 1977, the smaller of the two
dams, the Secondary Dam, failed catastrophically, flooding the valley
and part of the city of Benghazi.
This paper examines the result of an investigation conducted to de-
termine the causes of failure of this dam. It is hoped that the conclusions
will be useful for earth dam construction practices in semi-arid zones.

SECONDARY DAM OF WADI QATTARAH (6,18)

The ill-fated secondary dam was constructed in 1972. Fig. 1 shows the
site location of the dam. A typical cross section is given in Fig. 2. The
plan view of the dam is shown in Fig. 3. The crest length of the em-
bankment is 217.0 m; the lowest ground level is 153.2 m; and maximum
height of the dam is 28.0 m. The leading dimensions of the dam are
given in Table 1. The total quantity of earth, filter material, and rock
pitching incorporated in the dam was 223,000 m3.
It was a homogeneous dam with a silty clay core. An inclined chimney
drain, a blanket filter, and a toe drain were provided. The upstream and
'Assoc. Prof, of Civ. Engrg., Univ. of Garyounis, Benghazi, Libya.
Note.—Discussion open until July 1, 1983. To extend the closing date one
month, a written request must be filed with the ASCE Manager of Technical and
Professional Publications. The manuscript for this paper was submitted for re-
view and possible publication on June 9, 1982. This paper is part of the Journal
o i 1 n ^ e / n ^ C ^ l ? n g i n e e r i n S ' V o L 109 ' N o - 2- February, 1983. ©ASCE, ISSN 0733-
9410/83/0002-0244/$01.00. Proc. No. 17752.
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FIG. 1.—Site of the Secondary Dam, Wadi Qattarah

downstream slopes were protected by the hand placed pitching of


stones. A trench excavated to bed rock and back filled with earth fill
formed a cut-off. A concrete key was constructed in the rock and was
used as a grout cap for a grout curtain. The spillway was on the left
abutment. A 2.0 m diam concrete culvert was provided in the deepest
part of the valley. The inlet to the conduit was controlled in the tower
which incorporated two electronically operated control gates. The cul-
vert itself was founded on bed rock all along.
No fundamental flaw in the design or construction of this dam has
been detected by any of the several expert committees that studied this
failure exclusively or as part of their general involvement in the various
projects of the same area (3,4,17). The cause of this failure was sought,
therefore, in some seemingly minor but, in effect, highly significant
detail.

GEOLOGY, HYDROGEOLOGY, AND CLIMATOLOGY (3,5,15)

The Wadi Qattarah area consists of two distinct zones, a coastal plain
extending to a southerly treading cliff line and an upland and an upland
zone extending eastward from the cliff-line to the Jebel Akhdar moun-
tains. The coastal plain rises to elevations of 200 m above sea level at
the base of cliffline while in the upland zone elevations extend 600 ASL.
The upland zone is dissected by a number of Wadis, one of which is
Wadi Qattarah.
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Earthfitt Material

K>
en

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GROUT CURTAIN

FIG. 2.—Typical Section of the Secondary Dam, Wadi Qattarah


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FIG. 3.—Plan View of the Secondary Dam

TABLE 1.—Leading Dimensions of Secondary Dam


Dam characteristic Dimension
0) (2)
Crest of embankment, in meters 181.0 ASL
Top water level, in meters (Hidroprojekat
design) 179.2 ASL
Maximum retention level, in meters 178.2 ASL
Original wadi bed level, in meters 153.1 ASL
Lowest foundation level, in meters 147.5 ASL
Lowest level dug for grout cap, in meters 142.5 ASL
Lowest level of grout curtain 115.0 ASL
Maximum height above foundation, in meters 34.0
Maximum height above original ground,
in meters 28.0
Length of embankment, in meters 218.0
Width of embankment crest, in meters 6.0
Upstream slope 3:1
Downstream slope (effective) 2.8:1
Catchment area, in square kilometers 61.5
Reservoir gross storage volume, Mm3 4.8
Reservoir surface area at top water level,
in square kilometers 0.56
Spill way capacity, in cubic meters per second 56
Bottom outlet maximum capacity, in cubic
meters per second 35

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TABLE 2.—Typical Outcrops, Wadl Qattarah Region
Thickness,
Member Lithology in meters
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(D (2) (3)
Wadi limestone oolitic, greyish white, porous, soft 14
Qattarah with chert nodules
Benghazi limestone, whitish grey, medium grained, 13
weakly cemented, bedded
limestone, whitish grey, fossiliferous, weakly 8
cemented, beds of 1 m-2 m
dolomite, marly yellow 10
limestone, fine-grained, porous, bedded 6
limestone, light grey, fossiliferous, fine-grained 18
recrystallized, hard bed of 1.5 m-3.5 m
limestone, yellowish grey, fossiliferous fine- 7
grained recrystallized, hard beds of 2 m-4 m

TABLE 3.—Typical Borehole Details, Wadi Qattarah Region


Thickness,
Member Lithology in meters
(1) (2) (3)
Benghazi limestone, conglomeratic, light red 3.6
limestone, marly, greyishyellow, fossiliferous, 27.4
soft, porous
limestone, sandy, and marly 5.5
limestone, grey, fossiliferous, soft, porous 6.2
dolomitic limestone, grey, soft 10.0
marl, grey, hard 2.4
dolomitic limestone, soft 3.2
limestone, sandy, massive, soft, porous 9.9
limestone, marly, grey, soft 4.1
marl, greyish yellow, hard 1.6
limestone, marly 8.5
marl, sandy, blue, hard 10.3
limestone, marly, soft 3.1
limestone, sandy, soft 1.9
sandstone, carbonaceous, soft 1.5
limestone, sandy, grey, hard 10.7
sandstone, carbonaceous, soft 3.4
limestone, sandy and marly, grey soft 21.8
Al Faidiyah marl, blue 8.7
limestone, marly 0.8
marl, blue 5.0
limestone, sandy and marly 0.8
marlstone, blue 7.5
limestone, sandy and marly, grey, soft 2.8
limestone, grey, hard 76.0

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FIG. 4.—Wadi Qattarah Regional Geology, Stratigraphic Column

The entire Wadi is underlain by a sequence of calcareous tertiary sed-


iments which have a gentle regional dip to the west and southwest.
Older rocks of cretaceous age outcrop in a Jebel Akhdar and form the
upper catchment of the Wadi. Quarternary sediments are present as ter-
race gravels locally resting on the tertiary strata in the interfluves and
as alluvium in the Wadis and on the coastal plain. The geological succes-
sion is given in Tables 2 and 3 and Fig. 4. A view of the topography of
the area across the failed dam is shown in Fig. 5.

FIG. 5.—A View of the General Topography of the Area Across the Failed Dam
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176

175
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IB 19 20 21 22 23 21 25 26 27 2B 2S 30 17 (8 19 20 21
Novtmbtr 1977 OtctmUr 1977
DATES

FIG. 6.—Chronology of Reservoir Levels Prior to Failure

The annual rainfall of the area varies between wide limits from year
to year. Most of the rainfall occurs in winter (November-February) when
evaporation is small. The seasonal temperature variation in this region
is also large. Table 4 summarizes the climatological data for this region.

TABLE 4.—Temperature, Rainfall Data, Wadi Qattarah Region


Temperature
and rainfall Minimum Maximum Comment
(D (2) (3) (4)
Temperature, in degrees 12.5 26.5 absolute values may differ
Celsius (mean annual) from the mean by as much
as5°C
Precipitation, in millimeters 0
Monthly 0 176 data for the period 1960-1978
Annual 140 369

TABLE 5.—Sequence of Events on December 21, 1977


Time Condition of dam
(1) (2)
9:30 am reservoir level 175.24 m
11:30 am muddy water flooding the toe of the dam above the bottom
outlet; this place was dry at 10.00 am
Noon downstream slope starts eroding
large discharge of water coming out
blocks of surface rip-rap tumbling down
1:00 pm service bridge between crest of dam and the gate tower falls
down
1:10 pm a large segment of crest falls
reservoir breached; breach continues to enlarge
6:00 pm reservoir empty, flooding the wadi downstream
grave threat to the city of Benghazi

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SEQUENCE OF EVENTS (4,16,17)

The construction of the secondary dam was completed in 1972. Up to


1977, only a small amount of water was impounded behind the dam.
The failure occurred in a season of unprecedented heavy rainfalls. For
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this season in 1977, the rise in reservoir level from November 16 up to


the day the failure occurred is given in Fig. 6. Table 5 summarizes the
precise sequence of events, as reconstruced from available records and
by the various eyewitness reports including the testimony of the site
technician. Figs. 7 and 8 show the views of the failed dam.
The sequence of events leaves no doubt that the failure took place by
piping. The purpose of this study was to study the geotechnical aspects
of this failure in order to establish the mechanism leading to this piping
failure (8).
Geotechnical Tests.—A large number of soil samples were collected
from the core of the failed dam and tested in the laboratory. The results

FIG. 7.—A View of the Dam after Failure

FIG. 8.—Another View of the Failed Dam

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TABLE 6.™Results of Geotechnical Tests
Number Tests Values obtained
(D (2) (3)
1 specific gravity 2.61
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2 liquid limit 35
3 plastic limit 12
4 percentage finer than No. 200 95
sieve
5 percentage sand 43
6 percentage silt 25
7 percentage clay 32
8 permeability, in meters per 1.6 x 10"6
second
9 classification of soil
AASHO A-6
unified CL
10 cohesion, in kilograms per centi- 0.5 effective stress parameters
meter squared
11 angle of internal friction 26° consolidated—undrained
test
12.9 maximum dry density, in grams 1.74 standard Proctor Test
per cubic centimeter
13 optimum moisture content 19
14 compression index Cc 0.14

of these tests are given in Table 6. No significant variation was found


in the values of the various parameters from sample to sample.
Particle size distribution (Fig. 9) and plasticity tests show that the core
was constructed of silty clay of medium activity (unified soil classifica-
tion CL).
Field observations of borrow area as well as the core of the failed dam

Sand Silt City


Medium Fine Coerts Medium Fine Coarse Madfum Fine
WO

90

so

•* 70
•c
.ft
v?>tLL
1
SA MPL ES FALL WITHIN
| so J H E 1UNI3E SHOWN

T 1
**
V.

£ <o LJ
C
S 30
<•.
6
MWA
°- 20

0.1 . 0-0i
Diameter in mm

FIG. 9.—Particle Size Distribution of Soil Samples from Secondary Dam Core
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FIG. 10.—Photograph Showing Typical Seasonal Cracking Pattern of Soil in the


Field—Borrow Area Site

FIG. 11.—Photograph Showing Cracking Patterns Obtained in the Laboratory


Tests

showed extensive cracking in the dry season (Fig. 10). These cracks dis-
appear in the rainy season; the soil itself becomes muddy at the surface.
The seasonal cracking is severe and extensive and is commonly observed
at all sites where this type of soil is encountered in this region. The
cracks vary in width from 1 mm to as much as 8 mm. These are well
interconnected forming a regular maze pattern. Blocks of soil 150 mm
x 150 mm can be lifted easily out of the dried soil mass.
Cracking of the core may lead to leakage and erosion (7). To study
the behavior more in detail, a program of laboratory tests was under-
taken. The object of these tests was to identify the factors influencing
the width and spacing of the cracks. Soil for this purpose was collected
from the core of the failed dam. Laboratory samples were prepared,
varying in size, compactive effort, and moisture content. The samples
were prepared in moulds commonly used in laboratories for concrete
cube testing. Each sample was carefully taken out of the mould and
placed in the over (110° C) for three days. It was then taken out of the
oven, allowed to cool to room temperature, and then kept under dis-
tilled water for 12 hr. In one series of this program of testing, the soaked
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TABLE 7.—Cracking Tests of Samples of Core Soil

Soil Range
number Parameter Minimum J ° Maximum Comment
(1) (2) (3) (4) (5)
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1 sample size 100 mm x 100 mm 150 mm x 150 mm a total of 40


x 100 mm x 150 mm samples were
tested
2 compaction
hammer 2.5 kg 4.9 kg all samples were
weight prepared in
drop of 30 cm 45 cm three layers
hammer
3 moisture OMC - 3% OMC + 3% OMC was taken
content as 19%

samples were air-dried for a day and then put again in the oven, thus,
repeating the whole cycle. Table 7 gives the details of this testing
program.
Each sample was carefully examined before and after putting it in the
oven or under water. Results of these tests can be summarized as
follows:

1. All samples show extensive cracking with loss of moisture. Typical


cracking patterns obtained are shown in Fig. 11.
2. Small variations in size or moisture content do not appear to have
a major effect on the width or spacing of cracks. (Large variation in these
factors was not studied.)
3. The most important factor influencing the width and spacing of the
cracks is the amount of compaction at which the sample was prepared.
The higher the compactive effort was, the less the cracking was, and
vice versa. In fact, no cracking was observed for samples prepared at
a modified Proctor compaction effort.
4. Under water, a soft muddy paste of soil slowly flowed into the
cracks, partially filling it up. The paste was so soft that flowing water
would certainly remove it.
5. Samples prepared at lower compactive effort suffered more disin-
tegration when placed under water after oven drying.

These results are qualitative only, but confirmed the main suspicion that
during the long, hot summer severe cracking of the core took place,
particularly at places where compaction was poor.
Dispersive Nature of Soil.—A review of case histories of earth dam
failures (1,2,12) shows that in semi-arid areas a significant cause of fail-
ure is dispersive piping. A feature common to many of these cases is
that failure occurred after heavy rains in the catchment area following
a long drjr period during which the water level was low. Failure of the
secondary dam in Wadi Qattarah also occurred in similar circumstances.
It was thought necessary, therefore, to determine if the core of the failed
dam was of dispersive soil.
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TABLE 8.-—Chemical Analysis of Soil Samples
Soil number Test Range of values
(1) (2) (3)
1 cations (milliequivalent per liter)
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calcium 34.0-40.0
magnessium 21.5-25.5
sodium 67.5-70.0
potassium 0.25-0.38
2 anions (milliequivalent per liter)
bicarbonate 1.0-2.0
chlorides 109.0-114.0
sulphates 11.0-13.5
nitrates 3.5-4.0
3 sodium adsorption ratio 12.4-12.6
4 PH 7.8-7.9

Chemical analysis of 25 samples (Table 8) indicated a high Na + /Ca + +


ratio. All 25 samples fall in zone C (Fig. 12), indicating the soil to be
moderately dispersive (14). The Crumb test also gave similar results
(Grade III). Pin-hole test, though, proved negative (NDj). However,
Sherard, et'al. (13) have noted that "for certain soils, small differences
in compaction can have important influence on the pin-hole test re-
sults." In compacting large volumes of soil, such as in the construction
of an earth dam, it is likely that around a discontinuity, e.g., a conduit,
compaction is poorly affected. Poor compaction by itself causes a textural
discontinuity sufficient to trigger a dispersive action (1).

ANALYSIS

Piping in an earth dam can be initiated by soil erosion either through


the body of the dam or through the foundation starting at the down-
stream side. In the present case, the later possibility can be ruled out,
since the permeability of the limestone bedrock, even without the grout
curtain, is found to be small (0.5 x 10 -5 cm/s). In any case, there is no
evidence of the grout curtain failing to stop any significant percolation.
Where bedrock is limestone, possibility of karstification (9) leading to

N
Percent Sodium - °"00' = N
<"'00>
TOs CatMgtk
( All measured mill) equivalent per litre of Saturation Extract}

Vs. ZONE A

E2
\ ZONE C All 25 Simptts ————-?
ZONE B
-
0-2 OS 10 S 10 20 SO 100 200
Total Dissolved Solid in Saturation Extract (m. ea./litre)

FIG. 12.—Identification of Soil Dispersivity (14)


255

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excessive seepage through the solution channels has to be taken into
consideration. At least one report (16) has suggested it is the probable
cause of failure. This, however, is not substantiated by the various geo-
logical studies (5,15,17) conducted in this area. The limestone is not ho-
mogeneous, but is interbedded with hard crusts of marls. Such a bed-
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ding sequence is not conducive to large-scale karstification.


All evidence, therefore, suggests that the piping took place through
the body of the dam. The precise location of this failure is at the left
abutment. Records show that it initiated in the vicinity of the concrete
conduit at the downstream end and progressed rapidly backwards. The
conduit itself was founded in firm bedrock. Cracking of core due to set-
tlement of the conduit can be, therefore, ruled out. There is no evidence
either of any structural failure of the conduit. It is, however, likely that
compaction of fill around the conduit was poor, rendering this portion
susceptible to extensive cracking.
Yong, et al. (19) have shown that for dispersive piping to occur two
conditions are necessary. "First, the presence of small cracks. . . . Sec-
ondly, the resultant shear stress developed in view of the fluid flow
under the hydraulic gradient to the walls of the small cracks must exceed
the shear resistance of particles."
In the semi-arid areas, where bedrock is relatively impervious, low
infiltration and consequent high run-off often results in "flash floods"
(14). This leads to a rapid buildup of reservoir water level with conse-
quent high velocities of percolating water in the core. Though erosion
property is not a direct function of hydraulic gradient, the combination
of high gradient and even moderate dispersion property may be critical
and lead to erosion. Tests conducted by Yong, et al. (19) on kaolinite-
illite soils indicate that such clays show slow thixotropic recovery and
are dispersive at high hydraulic gradients.
In general, dispersive soils are characterized by medium-to-high ac-
tivity, a clay content (particles smaller than 2 |xm) of more than 15%, a
probable classification of CL or CH, a high plasticity index, and a high
proportion of monovalent cations compared to other cations in soils. The
core soil of the failed dam possesses all these propertions. In light of
this study and the dispersive nature of soil, the following mechanism
i of piping failure in the present case is postulated:
i , .

1. The silty clay of which the core was constructed was moderately
dispersive.
2. In the semi-arid climate, the core suffered extensive cracking, par-
ticularly around the concrete conduit where compaction might be poor.
3. Heavy rains led to flash floods and a rapid build up of reservoir
levels and consequent high gradients of water flowing through the
cracks formed in the core.
4. Under these circumstances, the soil rapidly dispersed starting from
the walls of the cracks formed on the downstream side, progressing rap-
idly backwards.

A number of reported piping failures of earth dams in the semi-arid


areas of Australia (1,2) appear to follow the same pattern. For instance,
the failure of Hurstbridge dam in the state of Victoria, Australia, is re-
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TABLE 9.—Comparison of Cor© Soils of Two Failed Dams
Secondary dam, Hurst Bridge Dam,
Soil type Wadi Qattarah, Libya" Victoria, Australia (1 )b
(1) (2) (3)

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Gravel
Sand 43 46
Silt 25.0 28.0
Clay 32 18
Liquid limit 35 37
Plastic limit 12 16
Plasticity index 23 21
Activity 0.8 1.1
Classification CL CL
a
pH = 7.5.
b
pH = 5.9.

TABLE 10.—Representative Ground-Water Analysis, Wadi Qattarah Region


Range of Ions Present
Ions Surface samples Deep well samples
(1) (2) (3)
Calcium, me/L 12-18 52-180
Magnesium, me/L 3-3.5 22-122
Sodium, me/L 8-11 89-449
Potassium, me/L - —
pH 7.1 7.2

markably similar to the present case, as shown in Table 9. In both cases,


the core is of silty clay, and failure took place after heavy rains. The
critical factor in the case of these Australian dam failures has been iden-
tified as the high percentage of monovalent ions in the percolating
waters. In the present case also, the chemistry of the water may have
accelerated the failure. Table 10 gives the chemical analysis of samples
of water taken from the area at the surface and from the deep wells.
However the Na + /Ca + + ratio in the soil is so high that irrespective of
the chemistry of water the soil was dispersive.
The failure mechanism postulated in this paper has important practical
implications. Spillways and the conduits should obviously be designed
for much larger capacities in semi-arid areas to cater for flash floods.
Significance of compaction control, particularly around a discontinuity,
is also obvious.
Where dispersive soils have been encountered prior to construction
of earth dams, suitable modifications in the design have been success-
fully adopted. Provision of fine-sand filters (10), providing an upstream
layer of lime (1,12) and incorporating a blanket of nondispersive soil (10)
are some of the measures found satisfactory in such cases. Unfortu-
nately, it is difficult to incorporate any of these technique as a remedial
measure after failure. All remedial measures for the failed secondary

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dam have been found to be exorbitant in cost. Presently, alternative
schemes for flood control are u n d e r study for this area (16).

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS


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In the semi-arid zones, seasonal variations in temperature a n d soil


moisture content are extensive. This may induce severe cracking of the
core of an earth dam, particularly in places where soil is poorly com-
pacted. The winter rains often result in flash floods leading to a rapid
build u p of reservoir level with consequent high velocities of water flow-
ing in the core. Moderately dispersive soils, in such a n environment,
may become highly dispersive, leading to piping failure. Such a mech-
anism of piping failure has been postulated for a n earth d a m failure in
Wadi Qattarah, Libya. From this study, it is logical to d r a w the following
conclusions of practical significance for semi-arid zones:

1. The spillways and the conduit should be designed for larger ca-
pacity to cater for flash floods.
2. Greater care should be exercised in compaction of the core. In par-
ticular, compaction a r o u n d any discontinuity, such as the conduit,
should be controlled carefully.
3. Remedial measures to rehabilitate a failed d a m having a dispersive
clay core are most expensive. It is essential, therefore, that such soils
are identified at the earliest stage. Preventive measures can t h e n be in-
corporated in the earth d a m at the design stage.
4. Identification of dispersive nature of soil should be carried out by
several techniques. Results of one technique alone may not be conclusive.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The writer would like to acknowledge the help a n d encouragement


received from Dr. A h m e d Shembesh, Dean of the Faculty of Engineer-
ing, University of Garyounis, Benghazi, Libya.
Thanks are also d u e to the Director, Dams and Water Authority,
Benghazi, for making available various reports and also for the facilities
provided by him for chemical analysis of soil and water samples.

APPENDIX.—REFERENCES

1. Aitchison, M. E., Ingles, O. G., and Wood, C. C , "Post Construction De-


flocculation as a Contributory Factor in Failure of Earth Dams," Proceedings
of the 4th Australia-Netu Zealand Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation
Engineering, 1963, pp. 275-279.
2. Aitchison, M. E., and Wood, C. C , "Some Interaction of Compaction, Per-
meability and Post-Construction Deflocculation Affecting the Probability of
Failure of Small Dams," Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Soil
Mechanics and Foundation Engineering, Vol. II, Montreal, Canada, 1965, pp.
442-446.
3. "Al Marj and Al Abyar Phase I Study, Hydrology, Climatology," Secretariat
of Dams and Water Resources, Technical Report No. 6.
4. Cerni, J., Wadi Qattarah Project—Final Report, Secretariat of Dams and Water
Authority, Benghazi, Libya, Aug., 1981.

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J. Geotech. Engrg. 1983.109:244-259.


5. Cerni, J., Wadi Qattarah Project—Second Stage, Basic Investigations and Stud-
ies, Vols. 1 and 2, 1973.
6. "Contract Document For The Construction of Wadi Qattarah Projects," Hy-
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