The death toll from the heavy rains lashing southern China has reached 53 with several other people reported missing. At least 22 of the deaths have been in Guangdong, the worst-affected province, state media report. Some reports put the death toll there as high as 36. More than 650,000 in the province have been affected by the flooding and landslides. A further 200,000 have been affected in Guangxi. Last week, 19 people died there and in Hunan and Guizhou as a result of heavy rains and floods that caused widespread property damage.
Category Archives: Environment
Being granted observer status at the Arctic Council is a significant step forward for China’s trade and energy ambitions on the roof of the world. A northern route through the Arctic would lessen the costs and dangers of shipping Chinese goods to Europe via the traditional and lengthier sea routes through the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa.
Global warming makes alternative northern routes feasible, at least in the summer months, which offer the promise of an ice-free northwestern passage to Europe. It also makes drilling for oil and gas a practical possibility. The region may hold up to a quarter of the world’s untapped fossil energy reserves.
Beijing has been beefing up its Arctic research and is building a new high-tech polar expedition ice-breaker due to be in service next year. China already has the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, the Ukraine-built Xue Long (Snow Dragon) which last year made the first passage from China to Iceland through the far north. Chinese mining companies are starting to invest in Greenland’s mineral resources and last month Beijing signed a free trade deal with Iceland, with which it is also cooperating on geothermal energy.
The full members of the Arctic Council — the Nordic countries, Canada, the U.S. and Russia — all have an Arctic coasts, which China self-evidently does not. Observer status, which it now shares with Japan, India, South Korea, Singapore and Italy, gives China the right to listen in on meetings and propose and finance policies.
China’s regional push into Africa and the Indian Ocean has met some resistance. Beijing is likely to continue to move cautiously if determinedly in the Arctic, not least because Russia, with its long Arctic coastline, sees itself as the regional power and energy bridge between Asia and Europe. But as we noted before, few can doubt that China’s mariners, fishermen, scientists and petroleum engineers will be plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever greater number.
For those looking for a location map of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Lushan county of Ya’an city in Sichuan Province on the morning of April 20th, 2013, we offer this map from the United Nations’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affaris (OCHA).
Up to 29 aftershocks have been reported, with the biggest one at magnitude 5.3. The death toll had climbed to 192 by Monday evening, state media reported, with hopes fading for 23 people still missing. The rescue effort is now turning into a relief operation for the more than 2,000 injured and around 120,000 people who have been evacuated from the immediate area.
If pigs could fly. Well, they do float. At least when dead. More than 2,000 bloated pig carcasses have been fished out of the Huangpu River at Songjiang on the outskirts of Shanghai. It is not unusual to see all sorts of pollutants in China’s rivers, including dead pigs, if not on this scale. It is not clear how the pigs got into the river, or who dumped them in it, but there are plenty of pig farms upstream. Authorities say there is no cause for concern over the quality of drinking water taken from the river, but this unusual case seems set to become a touchstone for popular concerns about environmental pollution.
Update: Authorities say the number is now up to 2,800 dead pigs, that the animals came from Jiaxing City in Zhejiang, and that the pig virus, PVC (porcine circovirus, which is not known to infect or cause disease in humans), had been found in one water sample.
The two views above are taken from the same vantage point less than 90 days apart. They show Yinshan Island in Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, which has been undergoing repeated cycles of shrinkage. At the time of the bottom photo was taken, late July, the lake covered an area of 3,990 square kilometers. The upper photo was taken this week. The lake’s surface area had shrunk to 1,060 square kilometers. There are more photos taken this week of Poyang Lake here.
That, though, is not as small as the lake got at the beginning of this year when it was down to 188 square kilometers. In its pomp, Poyang covers 4,500 square kilometers, an area six times the size of Singapore.
The lake is fed by five rivers in Jiangxi and empties into the Yangtze. Its water level now regularly falls so far that fishing is possible for barely three months of the year. The lake used to provide a livelihood for a fleet of 10,00 fishing boats, as well as supporting hundreds of thousands of migratory birds including the Siberian crane in winter, that, like the fishermen, depend on a lake full of fish to survive.
Poyang is also home to a rare finless porpoise, which is increasingly threatened with extinction. Its numbers in Lakes Poyang and Dongting were down to 600 in 2006 in a count that also covered the Yangtse. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is due to conduct its next survey in November and December. The results are awaited with some trepidation. The Yangtse’s other rare porpoise, the Baiji, has become extinct.
Poyang has been in decline for a decade, a casualty of industrialization, urbanization and agriculture. The WWF estimates that half China’s industrial waste and sewage ends up in the Yangtse. Some of that feeds into the lake. Only now are efforts being made to regenerate it before it is too late.
The global solar industry is going through tough times. Excess capacity has caused solar-panel prices to plummet. Chinese solar-panel manufacturers face double trouble because their exports are also under anti-dumping investigations in the EU and the U.S. So Beijing is giving the domestic industry a boost to look inwards.
A report in the China Securities Journal says the National Energy Administration has told all provinces to come up with pilot schemes for local electricity generation using solar power. Plans are due by October 15, implementation by 2015. Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin have been told to be in the vanguard. Putting the banks’ money where the policymakers’ mouths are, the China Development Bank is to provide financial support through loans to the top dozen solar companies.
A new research paper* into the vulnerability to coastal flooding of the nine major world cites on river deltas makes grim reading for Shanghai however you look at it. No city of the nine is worse situated. Shanghai has the longest waterfront, along both river and sea. It has the highest concentration of residents living in flood-prone areas. It has the weakest institutional flood-repsonse capacity for the size of risk it faces. Taken together, as the chart above shows (a 1 is bad, zero good) those factors make Shanghai the most vulnerable major city in the world to coastal flooding, a title, the report says, it will still hold at the end of this century unless action is taken.
That action is urgent. As we have noted before Shanghai is sinking. Meanwhile, sea levels continue to rise. If there is a silver lining to the report, it is that Shanghai is wealthy enough to recover relatively quickly from such a disaster.
*A flood vulnerability index for coastal cities and its use in assessing climate change impacts. By S.F. Balica and N.G. Wright of the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and Delft University of Technology, and F. van deer Meulen of the School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds. Natural Hazards. 2012.
Footnote: The nine delta cities studied were Buenos Aires (Argentina), Calcutta (India), Casablanca (Morocco), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Manila (Philippines), Marseille (France), Osaka (Japan), Shanghai (China) and Rotterdam (the Netherlands).
Mariners first sought a northern passage across the roof of the world from Europe to the riches of the Orient centuries ago. So it is a surprise, to this Bystander at least, that what is said to be the first Chinese ship to make the voyage in the opposite direction has only just done so. The Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, an icebreaker in the commission of the Polar Research Institute of China and which also has the distinction of being the world’s largest non-nuclear icebreaker, arrived in Iceland earlier this week after sailing north along the coast of Russia and then weaving its way through five of the seas that comprise the Arctic Ocean. The photo above shows the Xue Long off the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. More photographs here.
Global warming is opening up the Arctic Ocean as a feasible trade route between Asia and Europe, one that is much shorter and less pirate infested than going west via the Moluccan Straits, the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa. It is also a region rich in natural resources. Russia’s state oil and gas companies, Gazprom and Rosneft, are already active on the Arctic shelf. China has joined the group of countries seeking to set limits on the extent of continental shelf economic rights. Meanwhile, Beijing is putting resources behind improving its deep seabed exploration capabilities.
A direct sea lane between China and Western Europe would enhance Iceland’s position as strategic partner for Beijing. It was there that Premier Wen Jiabao started his tour of northern Europe in April this year. Five years ago the two countries talked about free-trade agreement. Had it happened it would have been China’s first with a European country. The two are cooperating on developing geothermal technologies and resources in China and Africa.
China has a hard scientific interest in the Arctic. Recent research suggests that rapid sea ice melt there could be causing more cold, snowy winters in China, as it is in northern Europe and North America, by altering the jet stream. The Polar Research Institute founded its Yellow River research station in the Arctic as long ago as 2003. The Xue Long’s current trip is pitched as one of atmospheric and oceanographic research. China’s first observation buoy in the region will be set up during a later leg of the voyage.
Yet geo-politics are never far away. The attention given to last year’s flap over a proposed purchase of one of the largest tracts of land on Iceland by property developer and Icelandophile, Huang Nubo, seen as a beachhead for greater Chinese presence on the island, underlined international misgivings about China’s interest in the region. Beijing has also applied for membership of the Arctic Council, the intergovernmental group that oversees management of the region and comprises the eight powers that actually have territory there: Washington, Moscow, Ottawa, Reykjavik, Oslo, Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen.
Beijing is not the only outsider that wants in. Tokyo and Seoul have also applied for membership as has the EU as a group, and New Delhi come to that. The outsiders will inevitably have different interests from the locals, potentially changing the scope of the Council. At best Beijing can hope to be given observer status next year, when the applications will be considered. Regardless, Beijing is expanding its polar research program and building a second icebreaker. Few can doubt that China’s mariners, fishermen, scientists and petroleum engineers will be plying the increasingly less icy waters of the Arctic in ever greater number.
Following the heavy rains that recently inundated Beijing with such loss of life, the capital is to build 20 underground flood pools to relieve future storm flooding. They will be put under places known to susceptible to flash floods, low-lying roadways in particular.
A conventional surface flood pool is the land around a reservoir that is intended to be flooded in the event of extreme rains as the reservoir rises and backs up. The excess water is then run off by being released through the reservoir’s dam in subsequent days. Underground storm water storage works in much the same way, temporarily holding storm water until a city’s drainage system can handle it.
Flood pools are not only a common form of flood management, but, smartly managed, are also a potentially profitable source of municipal water supplies, irrigation, recreation facilities and fish or wildlife habitats, Beijing’s flood pools won’t bring such broad public goods as far as we can tell. They will have to be fitted in between all the other subterranean construction beneath a long-established city: sewer and water pipes, subway lines, building foundations and the like.
Modern underground storm water storage systems are often modular, so can be constructed as shape and space allows. Alternatively they can be built from large diameter pipes and threaded around obstructions. Their capacity is typically equivalent to a swimming pool and are easiest to retrofit to places like roads and parking lots that can be dug up and the systems installed under them.
Urban flooding is a worsening problem in China (and elsewhere) as global warming, urbanization and industrialization pose a growing triple threat to cities’ natural defences, defenses urban planners have anyway been concreting over with reckless abandon. It is, though, reasonable to ask why there hasn’t previously been more provision to deal with flash floods in the capital.
Hong Kong, for one, has underground storm water storage in several of its towns already and is planning to build more, notably in Happy Valley on Hong Kong Island which is to get an award winning, state of the art flood pool at a cost of HK$1 billion ($130 million). Hong Kong had the advantage of being able to build the lower -tech tanks it already has into its new towns from the outset, a luxury that Beijing doesn’t enjoy.
Urban planners are only now realizing that they have to make cities greener so they are less encouraging to extreme weather. All the newly constructed impervious surfaces such as roads, parking lots and rooftops, create run-offs that existing urban drainage, often old and inadequate, can’t handle. can’t handle. Not only is ground storage for rainwater scarce and run-offs from hard surfaces absent, ancient streams that could carry rainwater to rivers and ponds that could help it find its way to acquirers below have been filled in. As Beijing’s are expensively learning– the economic cost of the recent floods is estimated to be at least 2.3 billion yuan ($360 million), before the cost of installing the new storage tanks–they need to create the modern urban equivalent of something nature has provided naturally.
The ballot box may not offer many local residents in China much by way of a direct route to change should they be unhappy with development plans on environmental grounds. The streets are proving more effective. In Qidong, to the north of Shanghai, plans for an industrial waste pipeline have been scrapped following local protests that included ransacking government offices and overturning cars. The proposed pipeline would have emptied waste water from a paper factory owned by Oki, a Japanese company, into the sea near Qidong. Oki maintains the waste is filtered and clean. Local residents didn’t believe it. (This Bystander makes no judgement on the competing claims.)
The protest followed similar successful demonstrations against a planned metals plant in Shifang, a town in Sichuan earlier this month, and, over the past year, in places as far apart as Dalian in the northeast and Haimen in Guangdong. There is a growing appreciation on the part of the leadership and certainly on the part of many citizens that untrammeled growth with no regard to its environmental impact is no longer a road that China can travel, but the sentiment has not yet universally permeated the lower ranks of officialdom. There, promotions still depend on luring fresh investment to generate local economic growth.
Yet local residents are showing themselves to be less and less prepared to put up with dirty air, undrinkable water and tainted food and medicine. The underlying issue for the Party is how to manage these mostly legitimate grievances. Repeated crackdowns in the name of stability and social harmony is unsustainable. Nor does it solve the underlying problems, anymore than stopping online chatter about them does. Yet allowing local activism to get too violent too often, with the risk that it gets out of hand or spreads widely, is equally unacceptable, and especially to a new generation of leadership whose own youth was disrupted by the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.
That is not to suggest that environmental protests being seen today are analogous to the political anarchy of the Cultural Revolution, but there is a long-standing fear among the Party’s theoreticians that the environment is an issue where activism could coalesce into a political movement that could challenge the Party’s monopoly grip on power. The long-term answer, as some reformers in the Party have suggested, is to allow more local democracy. While there have been some tiny experiments in that direction in rural villages and Guangdong (see Wukan, et al), Party leaders know that it is a genie that once let out of the bottle is difficult to get back. Too few are still willing to take the risk.