Lessons from Zhengzhou

Catastrophic floods expose the downsides of a ‘cashless’ society


Floods impacted 13 million people

Heavy rains have continued in the central province of Henan this week, flooding new areas and leading to further loss of life.

The official death toll from the two-week deluge has risen to 99. Given the severity of the damage, it is expected to rise further.

The worst affected area this week has been Xinxiang, a city to the north of Zhengzhou. But across the whole province more than 13 million people have been affected, local officials say.

The downpour has triggered a debate online about the causes of the deluge, with climate change coming up as a likely factor in the supercharged nature of the annual floods.

“Global warming has aggravated the instability of the climate system, which is the root cause of frequent and more intense extreme weather and climate events,” China News Service quoted the deputy director of the National Meteorological Centre as saying.

Countries including Germany, Holland, Belgium, the UK, Japan and India have all experienced extreme flooding this year. In contrast, parts of Siberia, Canada and California have been suffering from extreme heat and wildfires.

China’s political leaders have steered clear of making the connection between climate change and the Henan floods, although the Chinese public has been asking how the nation’s cities can be protected against similar calamities in future.

And while the response of the emergency services to the flooding has generally been impressive, many want to know why a so-called “sponge city” like Zhengzhou (see WiC508) flooded so quickly in the first place, and why metro and traffic tunnels were designed in such a flawed way that they filled so rapidly with water.

Attempts to prevent the public from leaving floral tributes for the victims of the Shakoulu metro station disaster have also triggered anger. The death toll on the trapped train grew from 12 to 14 this week after two more bodies were found.

Netizens are particularly concerned that it took metro officials four hours to rescue the 500 passengers on the flooded train and that people on board were still messaging their loved ones above ground even when metro bosses had announced that the rescue operation was complete.

Other examples of infrastructure failures included widespread loss of mobile phone and internet coverage in the city. That meant no service for the country’s ubiquitous digital payment apps WeChat Pay and Alipay, with shops having to revert to a ‘cash only’ policy. With bank cash machines also largely out of service, a few stores even reverted to the use of barter to make sales.

In Mihe, a town to the west of Zhengzhou, telecoms giant China Mobile flew a drone for 16 hours to provide emergency phone coverage to flooded areas, allowing families to make contact with missing loved ones or call for help.

In Xinxiang – the worst hit in recent days – there was a frantic battle to fill a breach in a canal wall. Soldiers drove trucks into the gap and then plugged up the submerged vehicle with hundreds of sandbags. Another video showed trucks being loaded up with rocks, put into into gear and pushed into flood waters in a bid to block their course.

Reports from flooded rural areas show extensive damage to crops and livestock. Pictures from Wangfan village outside Xinxiang show dead pigs being pulled from muddy water and dozens of chicken carcasses being loaded into carts. The Henan authorities say more than 900,000 hectares of crops have been damaged and that a significant proportion of the harvest has been lost.

Heavy rain in Beijing this week also led to five deaths when a retaining wall in the hilly western part of the city collapsed, showering debris on the houses below.

Shanghai and the surrounding area was also buffeted this weekend by a severe tropical storm which forced airports to close and prevented the metro train from running above ground.

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