A flood of data

Was Zhouqu tragedy of China’s own making?

A flood of data

A landslide-hit street in Zhouqu

One of the things you see when you go to the mountains of Zhouqu, a city in remote Gansu, is a sign above the Bailong River: “A hidden jewel on the river, the natural spring city of Zhouqu.”

These days Zhouqu is hardly a hidden jewel. The city is headline news, having suffered a massive mudslide that has claimed more than 1,100 lives. The death toll is probably higher as it only counts long-term residents. Migrant workers, who may not have registered locally and are harder to track, are also likely to have died in the disaster too.

As torrential rains continued to take a heavy toll on the county, the disaster is prompting many to ask what triggered the massive wall of mud and dirt. The immediate cause, needless to say, is record rainfall. But officials have also blamed another natural phenomenon; the lingering impact of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which is thought to have loosened geological structures in the area.

Flooding during this year’s rainy season has been unusually severe. Even before Zhouqu, fatalities from landslides were running far above previous years, according to a blog authored by Dave Petley, a professor at Durham University in the UK.

Across China, the rains have caused tens of billions of dollars in damage. The US Department of Agriculture has estimated economic losses reaching $12.3 billion, and that was at the end of June. The adverse weather has not relented since.

Some argue that this isn’t just a China problem. According to Professor Petley, flood levels are rising across many areas of Asia, Europe and North America. But other observers are blaming more than just the weather. They say that landslides are now a greater threat (in both likelihood and severity) because of careless economic development, even in Gansu’s mountainous valleys. Western China has been the target of various campaigns to encourage economic growth rates closer to those of the country’s coastal zones. Now there are calls to examine just what impact that development could be having on more ecologically-fragile areas.

It’s a sensitive topic and the local media has faced challenges reporting it. Research papers discussing similar disasters were quickly removed from the internet. Caijing Magazine, which ran a cover story on the landslide under the headline “Bury Zhouqu” was also pulled from newsstands almost immediately.

The Caijing article, which is still circulating on the internet, attracted the censor’s ire because it states that the Zhouqu disaster was a man-made phenomenon, the result of greed and bad decisions by local officials.

The magazine says the problem began with Zhouqu’s logging industry. The forest coverage ratio in the adjoining area declined from 67% to 20% in 1998 – when further deforestation was banned. Forests can absorb surplus water during torrential rain. Without them flooding and mudslides are more likely.

Soon after logging was stopped, Zhouqu embarked upon an aggressive programme of hydropower construction along the Bailong River and its tributaries. These projects, experts say, destabilised mountainsides and increased the chances of avalanches and debris flows. Together with the indiscriminate logging of earlier years, the construction was the main factor behind the deadly mudslide, the outspoken Southern Weekend agreed on its front page last week. The newspaper urged the authorities not to put GDP growth before environmental protection.

Zhouqu’s experience is a bitter one, not least as drought and wildfires are often a problem elsewhere in western China. But it seems too that disasters of the Zhouqu type can often result in more fatalities in China because the country lacks an efficient monitoring system to evaluate geological risk.

WiC has written before about the public’s lack of faith in official earthquake warnings (WiC 53). But Liang Zhiheng, head of the Gansu Geological and Environmental Monitoring Centre, believes that a comprehensive early-warning system in Zhouqu could have forewarned of the mudslide at least 40 minutes before it crashed through the town, causing so much misery.

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