Wuhan’s woes

City of 10 million has chronic flooding problems, largely of its own making

Wuhan w

The city flooded again early this month

The history of modern China – that is to say China as a republic – began in Wuhan. The 1911 uprising in Wuchang – one of three cities later merged into current day Wuhan – triggered the Xinhai Revolution that overthrew two millennia of imperial rule, toppling the Qing Dynasty.

Sun Yat-sen, credited as the founder of modern China, had high hopes for Wuhan. In his three volume tome The International Development of China (sadly, not as gripping as its title suggests) Sun hoped that Wuhan would become one of the world’s biggest cities, rivalling New York and London. The Communist Party shares a similar vision for Wuhan, now the capital city of Hubei province (which with a population of more than 10 million is already bigger than any city in Europe). In a planning blueprint published early this month, the Wuhan government said it wants to become a “world city” by 2049 – a number chosen to coincide with a century of Communist Party rule.

The ambition is based on Wuhan’s strategic position at the geometric centre of China. Distances to major cites including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong are largely the same. Situated on the Yangtze River, Wuhan is already a transportation hub, with dozens of key railways and motorways passing through it. The city enjoys its label as the ‘Chicago of China’ (though not uniquely, Chongqing also claims that moniker, see WiC77).

Wuhan has a less desirable reputation too, for flooding. In fact, flooding is an increasingly common urban malaise. A government report shows that 62% of China’s 351 largest cities experienced floods between 2008 and 2010 and, as WiC readers may recall, the heaviest rainfall in Beijing in over 60 years led to floods that killed at least 77 people last July (see WiC160).

Flooding in Wuhan is particularly frequent, enough for China’s netizens to banter online about going to visit the city to see its “sea views”.

Early this month – in the same week that the Wuhan government unveiled its planning blueprint ‘2049’ – the city was hit by another heavy downpour. (Officials claimed it was the most rainfall in a single day since 1998). Yet again, water levels paralysed the entire city. Up to 45 transportation spots were waterlogged and 37 kilometres of roads or highways were damaged, causing an economic loss of Rmb250 million ($41 million).

Wuhan earmarked Rmb23 billion to improve its drainage system in the wake of a damaging flood in 2011. But as the Chutian Metropolis Daily acerbically notes, the system failed its first major test and Wuhan retains its dubious reputation as China’s ‘flood capital’.

The China News Service added its own dig: Wuhan had once again become “the oriental Venice overnight”.

The tourism authorities prefer Wuhan’s tagline as “the city of a hundred lakes”. That’s thanks to the numerous water courses and marshes within its 8,500-square-kilometre land area. Many districts are named after an adjacent patch of water and carry the suffix hu, which means “lake” in Chinese.

Reckless land reclamation around these lakes is the major reason for Wuhan’s chronic flooding problem, the Legal Weekly reports, as natural water storage and run-off is being blocked. “The lakes are disappearing and the city is crying… Lake elegy is Wuhan’s city elegy,” the magazine warns, drawing reference to River Elegy, an influential CCTV documentary in the late 1980s that portrayed the decline of traditional Chinese culture.

Official figures suggest that the number of inner-city lakes has fallen to 166 from more than 200 in 2002. Others have shrunk in size. The area of Shaihu, one of the most storied Wuhan waterscapes, has been reduced to 12 hectares from 80 hectares in the 1950s.

Almost half of this reclamation work has been illegal, with much of it still going on. According to the Legal Weekly, the city’s lake management bureau reported 20 cases of illegal reclamation on a single day in June. Most are related to residential developers, although a few were linked to infrastructure projects initiated by local government bodies.

In Wuhan – as elsewhere in China – whenever environmental concerns are at odds with economic development, the latter usually prevails. Officially, there is a ban on land reclamation in lake areas. But the penalty is Rmb50,000 – a laughable sum compared with the profits to be made by developers.

Even more risible are the excuses. Late last year, the Jiangxia district had already reclaimed 10,000 square metres of waterscape when the Wuhan government ordered a stop. In May this year, media found that an additional 10,000 square metres had quietly been reclaimed too. According to a local official responsible for the project, the additional dry land was a result of “sand and soil accidentally dropping into the lake”.

The city is now paying the price for the reclamations – during downpours the natural watercourse can no longer able cope. The Wuhan government unveiled a three-year plan in May pledging to invest an additional Rmb13 billion to improve drainage but local residents are increasingly angry at the disruption caused by the flooding. “Don’t lie to me about what could happen in 40 years time,” an internet user wrote on weibo after Wuhan unveiled its world city vision for 2049. “Get the [drainage] job done in the next four years.”

This week, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued long-awaited guidelines for upgrading drainage systems across the country as a whole.

The new rules stipulate that the drainage systems of 36 leading cities should be upgraded to handle heavy rain and prevent urban floods. Improvement plans have to be submitted before June next year.

The guidelines came amid public pressure to add flood prevention as a credential in evaluating local officials’ performance.

“Local officials are too concerned with vanity projects rather than the troubled water underneath,” the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily said. “Urban floods will remain a malaise until such urban management concepts change.”

The Information Daily agreed, suggesting that officials should be fired when cities suffer casualties from flooding. “That is the most effective solution, far more so than a hundred directives from the central government,” it said.

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