A man-made tragedy

Why Fuzhou’s faulty dyke is drawing comparisons with New Orleans

A man-made tragedy

Submerged by bureaucracy?

There’s an age-old Chinese expression that describes what it means to experience disaster and survive. ‘Chi ku’ translates literally as ‘to eat bitterness’. Lately, the people of southern China have had a bellyful of it. Just a few months ago they were praying for rain to end a devastating drought. But when the heavens finally opened, they were merciless.

Among the worst hit places was the town of Fuzhou, in Jiangxi – and the tragedy there was man-made. Experts had been warning for years that the Fuhe River was in danger of breaching its dykes, with catastrophic implications for low-lying districts. On June 21 it finally did.

Fuhe means ‘the comforting river’ in English, but there was nothing comfortable about the flood that forced 1.3 million people to evacuate. The locals, mostly farming folk, lost everything. Their homes were submerged, and their possessions and crops washed away.

It was with some reluctance that many residents let soldiers escort them to safety. “The chickens, cows and horses, even the blankets, they all mean a lot to these people,” a local university student told the China Daily, “they can’t just leave them there.”

The Changkai dyke was originally built during republican China’s heyday in 1936. But the pre-war engineers built the 82km long embankment on a base of sand. Since then, more has been spent to make the dyke strong enough (at least on paper) to see off a once-in-a-lifetime flood .

In reality, the dyke had been seriously weakened by erosion. A local Water Conservancy Bureau official later confessed to the New Century Magazine that it hadn’t been up to standard for years. What was needed was an estimated $60 million to significantly raise and widen its walls. So where was the money?

WiC has written extensively on local government corruption in past issues, but this time embezzlement wasn’t the problem.

Fuzhou officials were well aware the city’s defences were crumbling, and had been trying for years to do something about it.

But the agricultural town didn’t have the financial resources to do much of a job, and Beijing offered only enough to pay for basic repairs. It was just a matter of time before the river broke through.

That doesn’t leave local officials completely off the hook. One dyke expert told New Century that the breach could have been avoided if bungling officials had only posted a round-the-clock guard in areas where the dyke was visibly weakening. It should then have been possible to summon a repair crew in time to prevent catastrophe.

The flooding of Fuzhou is eerily reminiscent of the disaster that overtook New Orleans when hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, only on a smaller scale and with a much quicker government response. The 400 metre wide breach was eventually repaired last Sunday. But Fuzhou’s experience is not an isolated one. Last month’s rains saw 16 other levees fail in Jiangxi province alone.

The government learned to keep a close eye on major rivers after the tragic Yangtze River flood in 1998, and some observers are calling for the same level of care to be given to smaller waterways.

“Especially along medium-sized and smaller rivers, flood prevention standards are lower,” a senior disaster prevention official warned the Beijing Daily. “As soon as a major flood happens there’s an extreme likelihood of danger.”

Provincial officials have so far allocated $3.4 million to repair Fuzhou’s dyke, a figure that can at best be called a short-term fix. The costs of inaction look disproportionately worse. The rains of the past few weeks took nearly 400 lives and cost an estimated $12 billion over 22 provinces.

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