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Smt. Vasundhara Raje
Hon'ble Chief Minister, Rajasthan

Dr. Rampratap
Hon'ble W. R. Minister, Rajasthan
Right to Information Presantation on RTI Act The Act No 22 2005 RTI Directory IGNB

Design of Small Earth Dams


On the earth, most of the dams constructed so far are earthen dams. Failure of a number of earthen dams is due to faulty design. The design of different components of earthen dam has been narrated in this paper. This will help in better understanding of design of dams and dam failures.
Definition: A dam exceeding 15m in height above deepest river bed level is defined as large dam. Also a dam in between 10 m to 15 m height is termed as large dam if volume of earth dam exceeds 0.75 million cubic metre and storage exceed one million cubic metre or the maximum flood discharge exceeds 2000 m3/ sec.
A dam not satisfying the above criterion of large dam is termed as Small dam.
An earthen dam may be homogeneous or zoned type.

  • Homogeneous earth dam: A purely homogeneous type of dam is composed of a single kind of material. The purely homogeneous type of section, has now been replaced by a modified homogeneous section, in which small amount of carefully placed pervious material control the action of seepage so as to permit much steeper slopes as compared to pure homogenous dam. (Fig. 1).
  • Zoned earth dam: Zoned earth dams are composed of a central impervious core flanked by zones of materials considerably more pervious called shells. (Fig. 2)

The main components of the earth dam are described below:

  1. Cut off
  2. Core
  3. Casing
  4. Internal drainage system and foundations
  5. Slope protection
  6. Surface drainage
  7. Impervious blanket


  1. Cut off:
    The cut off is required,
    • To reduce loss of stored water through foundations and abutments
    • To prevent sub-surface erosion by piping.
  2. The type of cut off should be decided on the basis of detailed geological investigations. It is desirable to provide positive cut off. Where this is not possible, partial cut off with or without upstream impervious blanket may be provided. In any case, adequate drainage arrangements may be provided on the down stream.
    The following guidelines may be adopted for design of cut off.

    1. The cut off shall be located such that its centre line should be within the base of impervious core and should be upstream of centre line of dam.
    2. The positive cut off should be keyed at least to a depth of 0.4 metre into continuous impervious sub stratum or inerodable rock formation.
    3. A minimum bottom width of 4.0 metre is recommended.
    4. Side slopes of at least 1:1 or flatter may be provided in case of over burden while 1/2:1 and 1/4:1 may be provided in soft rock and hard rock respectively.
    5. The back fill material for cut off trench shall have same properties as those specified for impervious core.
    6. The cut off in the flanks on either side should normally extend upto the top of impervious core.
    7. If cut off trench is terminated in rock formation which is weathered or have cracks, joints and crevices; and if percolation test exhibit a lugeon value of more than 10(refer IS 6066-1984), then rock foundation below the bed of cut off trench should be grouted.
  3. Core:
    The core provides impermeable barrier within the body of the dam. Impervious soils are generally suitable for the core (IS 1498 -1970). However soils having high compressibility & liquid limit, and having organic contents may be avoided, as they are prone to swelling & formation of cracks.
    Following guidelines are recommended for design of core.
    1. The core may be located either centrally or inclined upstream.
    2. The minimum top width should be kept 3 metres.
    3. The top level of the core should be fixed at 0.5 m above MWL.
    4. The side slopes may be kept 0.5:1 and 1:1.
    5. Thickness of core at any section shall not be lesser than 30% (preferably not less than 50 percent) of maximum head of water acting at that section.
  4. Casing:
    The function of casing is to impart stability and protect the core. The relatively pervious materials, which are not subjected to cracking on direct exposure to atmosphere, are suitable for casing. Top width of dam should be provided as 4.5 m (minimum). The berms may be provided for the dam, which are more than 10 m in height. Minimum berm width may be kept as 3 m.
  5. Internal drainage system:
    To ensure safety of dam, it is very important to handle the seepage water in the dam so as to maintain the original particles of soils in their place. The measures commonly adopted for safe disposal of seepage water through embankment dams are;
    1. Inclined or vertical filter (chimney filter)
    2. Horizontal filter
    3. Rock toe
    4. Toe drain

    As far as possible locally available sand, gravel etc should be used. Inclined or vertical filter is provided just on down stream slope of core. Its thickness is kept 1.0 metre (minimum). Horizontal filter collects the seepage from chimney filter & foundation, and carries to the rock toe & toe drain. Its thickness is kept minimum as 1.0 metre. The standard filter criterion between filter and adjoining soil (casing or foundation) should be satisfied .In case of dam portions, where the head of water is 3 m or less it is not required to provide chimney filter or horizontal filter. Adequate toe protection shall however be provided. The height of rock toe is generally provided as 0.2 H, where H is the height of embankment. However minimum height of rock toe be kept as 1.0 metre. Rock toe is not necessary where height of embankment is 3 m or less.
    The toe drain is provided at the downstream toe of the earth dam to collect seepage from horizontal filter, rock toe & through foundation and to discharge it away from the dam by suitable surface or sub surface drains. The section of toe drain should be adequate enough to carry seepage. The bed of toe drain should be given a suitable slope to lead the seepage to natural drains. Depth of toe drain is usually provided as 1.5 m with bottom width of 1 m minimum and side slopes of 1:1 .For details IS 9429-1980 be referred.
    The filter material should satisfy the following criteria with the base material:

    1. D15 (f) / D15 (b) > 4 and < 20
    2. D15 (f) / D85 (b) < 5

    A filter that satisfies the above criteria may yet fail if it has an excess or lack of certain sizes or is not uniformly graded. The following criteria must be fulfilled.

    1. D50 (f) / D50 (b) < 25
    2. The gradation curve of the filter material should be nearly parallel to the gradation curve of the base material.
      The suffix 'f' stands for the filter material and 'b' for the base material. 15, 50, 85 percent particles, by weight, respectively are finer than D15, D50 and D85 particle size.
  6. Slope protection:
    Upstream slope: The upstream slope protection is ensured by providing riprap. For design of riprap, IS 8237-1985 may be referred. A minimum of 300 mm thick riprap over 150 mm thick filter layer may be provided upto the top of dam.
    Downstream slope: The down stream slope protection is ensured by turfing or riprap. It is usual practice to protect the down stream slope from rain cuts by providing suitable turfing on the entire downstream slope from top to toe. For details of downstream slope protection, IS 8237-1985 may be referred.
  7. Surface drainage:
    For surface drainage of downstream slope, a system of open paved drains (chutes) along the sloping surface terminating in the longitudinal collecting drains at the junction of berm and slope shall be provided at 50 m c/c to drain the rain water. The section of drain may be trapezoidal having depth of 30 cm. From longitudinal collecting drain, the rain water is carried through 15-cm diameter pipes placed at 50 m c/c into paved chutes on the d/s slope. For details please refer IS 8237-1985. Where no berm has been provided, the open paved drains (chutes) should terminate in the downstream rock toe or toe drain.
  8. Impervious blanket:
    The horizontal impervious blanket is provided to increase the path of seepage when full cut-off is not practicable in pervious foundation. The impervious blanket shall be connected to the core of the dam. To avoid formation of crack, the material should not be highly plastic. Reference may be made to IS: 1498-1970 for suitability of soils for blanket. (Table 2) A 300mm thick layer of random material over the blanket is recommended to prevent cracking due to exposure to atmosphere. The impervious blanket may be designed in accordance with IS: 8414-1977. As a general guideline, impervious blanket with a minimum thickness of 1.0 metre and a minimum length of 5 times the maximum water head measured from upstream toe of core may be provided.


  1. Safety against overtopping:
    1. Sufficient spillway capacity should be provided to prevent overtopping.
    2. The free board should be sufficient to prevent overtopping by waves and should be provided as per IS 10635-1993. The minimum free board of 1.5m should be provided.
    3. The free board should be sufficient to take into account the settlement of embankment and foundation.
  2. Stability analysis:
    The design of small embankment dam sections may be divided into the following three categories based upon the height of the embankment in its deepest portion.
    1. where the height of embankment is 5m or less
    2. where the height of embankment is 10 m or less, but more than 5 m
    3. where the height of embankment is 15 m or less, but more than 10 m

    For small dams under category (a) and (b) above, the stability analysis may not be necessary. General guidelines and the recommended slopes are given in Table 1 for guidance of the designer. The minimum top width may be kept as 4.50 m.
    However the designer with his experience and judgement may decide the adequate side slopes where special technical or economic considerations may have to be taken into account.
    Stability analysis may be carried out in accordance with IS 7894-1975 based upon the detailed foundation & borrow area investigation and laboratory testing if the soil strata below the dam seat consist of weak foundation and / or the height of embankment is more than 10 m.
    Weak foundation conditions include fissured clay, expansive soils, shales, over consolidated highly plastic clays, soft Clays, dispersive soils etc. within the substratum in the dam seat.
    Main problem of silt and clay foundations is stability. In addition to the obvious danger of bearing failure of foundations of silt and clay, the design must take into account effect of saturation of the foundations of the dam and appurtenant works by the reservoir.
    Method of treatment
    (a) To remove soils of low shearing strength
    (b) To provide drainage of foundation to permit increase of strength during construction
    (c) To reduce magnitude of average shearing stress along potential surface of sliding by flattening slopes of embankment
    Pockets of material substantially more compressible or lower in strength than the average, are usually removed.
    The most practicable solution for foundation of saturated fine-grained soils is to flatten the slopes of embankment.
    Soils of low density are subjected to large settlements when saturated by the reservoir, although these soils have high dry strength in natural state. If proper measures are not taken to control excessive settlement, failure of dam may occur by differential settlement and foundation settlement .The required treatment of low-density foundation would be dictated by the compression characteristics of the soil. Foundation consolidation will be achieved during construction.

  3. Seepage control and safety against internal erosion:
    The seepage through the dam embankment & foundation should be such as to control piping, erosion, sloughing and excessive loss of water. Seepage control measures are required to control seepage through dam and foundation.
    Design for control of seepage through dam shall be made in accordance with provisions contained in IS 9429-1999 "Code of practice for drainage system for earth and rockfill dams. Design for control of seepage through foundation may be made in accordance with IS 8414-1977 "Guidelines for design of under seepage control measures for earth and rock fill dams".
    If only one type of suitable material is readily available nearby, a homogeneous section is generally preferred. If the material available is impervious or semi pervious, a small quantity of pervious material is required as casing for protection against cracking. On the other hand if it is pervious, a thin impervious membrane is required to form a water barrier.

Stability at junctions
Junctions of embankment dam with foundation, abutments, masonry structures like overflow, non-overflow dams and outlets need special attention with reference to one or all of the following criteria.
(a) Good bond between embankment dam and foundations
(b) Adequate creep length at the contact plane
(c) Protection of embankment dam slope against scouring action
(d) Easy movement of traffic
For details IS 12169-1987 should be referred.


  1. IS 12169:1987 Criteria for design of small embankment dams
  2. IS 8237:1985 Code of practice for protection of slope for reservoir embankment
  3. IS 9429:1999 Code of practice for drainage system for earth and rockfill dams
  4. IS 8414:1977 Guidelines for design of under seepage control measures for earth and rock fill dams
  5. IS 6066:1994 Pressure grouting of rock foundations in river valley projects - Recommendations (Second revision)
  6. IS 10635:1993 Guidelines for freeboard requirement in embankment dams
  7. IS 1498:1970 Classification and identification of soils for general engineering purpose
  8. IS 7894:1975 Code of practice for stability analysis of earth dams


S. No. Description Height up to 5 m Height above 5 m and upto 10 m Height above 10 m and upto 15 m
1. Type of section

Homogeneous/Modified homogeneous section

Zoned / Modified omogeneous /Homogeneous section Zoned / modified homogeneous/ homogeneous section
2. Side slopes U/S D/S U/S D/S U/S D/S
a) Coarse grained soil      
  (i)GW,GP,SW,SP Not Suitable Not Suitable Not suitable for core, Suitable for casing zone
  (ii)GC,GM,SC,SM 2:1 2:1 2:1 2:1 Section to be decided based upon stability analysis
b) Fine grained soil      
  (i)CL,ML,CI,MI 2:1 2:1 2.5:1 2.25:1 -do-
  (ii) CH, MH 2:1 2:1 3.75:1 2.5:1 -do-
3. Hearting zone Not required May be Provided Necessary
  a) Top width -- 3m 3m
  b) Top Level -- 0.5m above MWL 0.5m above MWL
4. Rock toe height Not necessary upto 3m height. Above 3m height, 1m ht. of rock toe may be provided Necessary.H/5, where H is height of embankment Necessary.H/5, where H is height of embankment
5. Berms Not necessary Not necessary The berm may be provided as per design. The minimum berm width shall be 3 m.

(Extract from Table 1 of IS: 12169 - 1987)


RelativeSuitability HomogeneousDykes Zoned Dams Impervious Blankat
Impervious core Pervious casing
Very Suitable GC GC SW, GW GC
Suitable CL,CI CL,CI GM CL, CI
Fairly suitable SP, SM, CH GM, GC, SM, SC, CH SP, GP CH, SM, SC, GC
Poor - ML, MI, MH - -
Not suitable - OL, OI, OH, Pt - -

(Extract from Appendix A of IS 12169-1987)

Note : Refer IS: 1498-1970 'Classification and Identification of soils for general engineering purpose (first revision)'.

* Director, Minor Irrigation Schemes, Jaipur - 302015



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