When it pours

Flood season remains chaotic in China


Can this be prevented?

People don’t talk about China having a monsoon the way they speak of the summer downpours in India or Southeast Asia. But China’s rainy season is every bit as dramatic – and deadly.

In fact, so far, this year torrential rains have claimed more lives in China than they have in India.

Floods in the southern province of Hunan alone have killed at least 83 people and a rain-triggered landslide in June buried Xinmo, a village that was home to at least 80 people in the southwestern province of Sichuan. The official death toll from that incident is 10, while 73 are still missing.

Floods and landslides have killed at least 60 others in southern provinces such as Guangxi.

The government of Hunan – where 44 people died in a town named Ningxiang – said the rains this year were the heaviest and longest they had seen in six decades.

Water levels in Changsha, Hunan’s provincial capital, were higher than during the famous 1998 floods which resulted in more than 3,000 deaths and affected about one fifth of the Chinese population.

The question for many is why, 20 years later flood-related disasters like these are still happening.

The residents of Ningxiang say the only flood warning they received was a single notice attached to a door in the central market less than 24 hours before two nearby rivers, both tributaries of the Yangtze, burst their banks.

Four people were then arrested for “spreading rumours” about Ningxiang’s death toll. There has also been speculation that the state censor ordered a media blackout on the floods in the first weekend of this month, when Xi Jinping was in Hong Kong celebrating the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China.

But some media outlets later became openly critical, saying that local officials had displayed “indifference” to the people’s plight.

“A county official turns up at the disaster scene smoking, another with an umbrella, revealing their ‘officer’ style leadership. Indifference to the masses is worse than the floods,” wrote Shun Net, a news portal run by the Jinan Daily.

Legal Weekend said people began to listen to the rumours because the government was not quick enough to act. “Remember a rumour can travel half way round the world while truth is still putting on its shoes,” it said.

Meanwhile Caixin Weekly reported that Xinmo residents had spent years trying to draw official attention to a fissure which had opened up on the mountain above their village.

The huge crack appeared sometime after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake and during each rainy season would fill with water. “There are natural factors but this is a man-made disaster,” one villager said.

The specific article quoting the villager has now been censored.

“Official actions before and after disasters – and their designation as natural or otherwise – are often sensitive topics,” wrote the Hong Kong-based media monitor China Digital Times after the Xinmo landslide.

It went on to quote China Media Project’s David Bandurski  as saying “for China’s leaders, making sense of the senseless is a disruptive and dangerous act, because it nudges the mythically infallible foundations of legitimacy and power”.

Social media discussion of the Ningxiang flood has been heavily censored too with Sina Weibo shutting down its dedicated thread on the topic.

The state media has focused on government led-attempts to rescue people from the rains and rising waters in the Yangtze river basin. The Three Gorges and Gezhouba hydropower plants, also announced they had significantly cut the amount of water they were letting through their dams to prevent further flooding downstream. The Three Gorges Dam was built, in part, to stop such floods – thought it has been frequently criticised for failing to do so (see WiC332).

Yet even as the south struggles with the aftermath of the floods, Northern and Central China are enduring temperatures of above 35 degrees Celcius. This is raising paradoxical concerns: at a time when China’s two big hydropower plants are working at reduced capacity, more coal will need be burned instead to fuel increased demand for air conditioning. That in turn could worsen the air pollution situation.

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