Tag Archives: natural disasters

Storing Beijing’s Storm Water Before It Does Harm

Firefighters pull a submerged car near Guangqumen Bridge in Beijing, July 21, 2012.  (Xinhua/Li Fangyu)

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.

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Natural Disaster Dislocation In China In 2011

People make their way in flood at Guotai Village of Binyang County, southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Oct. 1, 2011. About 1,180,000 residents in Guangxi were hit by Typhoon Nesat, the strongest typhoon hit China this year as of 10 a.m. of local time. A total of 63,200 people were transferred in an emergency.(Xinhua/Huang Xiaobang)
China last year was spared the large-scale population dislocations caused by natural disasters that it experienced in 2010. That year monsoon flooding, earthquakes and the like uprooted 15.2 million people from their homes. Yet the figure for 2011 was still 4.5 million, more than for any other country. And natural disasters also left 1,126 people dead or missing last year, we should not forget. It all again underlines the human cost to the vulnerability of the country to natural disasters, and why so much effort and money is being put into monitoring them, preventing them and minimizing their effects.

The numbers are collated by the International Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council. The Centre has been keeping track for the past four years of the effects of extreme weather and geophysical hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes. It has just presented its most recent report to the Rio+20 environmental conference. Such is the size of China that the change in its figures between 2010 and 2011 accounts for two-fifths of decline in the worldwide number for natural-disaster dislocations from 42.3 million to 14.9 million over the same period.

Asia as a whole and China in particular is the most effected region (see table below). The biggest single displacement in 2011 was of 3.5 million people, caused by monsoon flooding in southern China. Overall, three in a thousand Chinese were displaced by natural disasters last year, which compares with three in a hundred in Sri Lanka, the country with the highest proportion of overall population displaced in 2011. China’s raw and relative numbers for the country would have been higher had the report included what it calls “slower-onset or gradual processes of environmental degradation such as drought and desertification”.

Disasters causing the largest scale displacements in 2011
Rank Country Disaster Month No. Displaced
1 China Floods Jun-Sep 3,514,000
2 Thailand Floods Aug-Jan 1,500,000
3 Philippines Floods Jan-Feb 672,131
4 India Floods Aug-Oct 570,000
5 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami March 492,000
6 Philippines Tropical Storm Washi December 441,037
7 Bangladesh Floods July 400,000
8 Japan Rain and Landslides July 400,000
9 Sri Lanka Floods January 362,646
10 China Typhoon Muifa August 360,000
13 China Typhoon Nesat Sep-Oct 300,000
30 China Earthquake (Yunnan) March 130,000
Source: International Displacement Monitoring Centre

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China Warns Of Severe Floods

While drought persists in southwestern China, this year’s rainy season is bringing fears of extensive flooding elsewhere in the country. The national flood and drought prevention agency is warning of flooding along the Yangtze potentially more severe than the catastrophic floods of 1998 that killed 4,150 people. Water levels on the river’s middle and lower reaches are 1-3 meters higher than normal as a result of the recent torrential downpours and floods are already occurring along some of the river’s tributaries.

State media quote Wu Daoxi, who heads the agency’s Yangtze office, as saying that the chance for large-scale flooding is significantly higher now than in 1998. Other officials from the agency say that widespread floods are also likely to occur along the Huaihe river and localized ones along the Pearl river. Reservoirs are reported to be already filled to 80-90% capacity. Last Friday, Chen Lei, minister for water resources, called for reservoirs to be shored up to prevent flooding, saying that 40,000 were at risk of giving way. One that did, the Badoucun reservoir in Hunan, has resulted in a local official being sacked for not taking precautionary measures in time.

The potential damage caused by flooding is getting more severe because depletion of groundwater is lowering water tables and causing some 50 of China’s largest cities to sink Venice-like, Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, Hangzhou and Xian among them. We have noted before the potential explosive social costs of a water crisis getting beyond the government’s control. It will take a comprehensive program of water conservation, better water resource management and better husbandry of the ecosystem. And there are plans on all those fronts. But the weather is no respecter of five-year plans.

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Companies’ Growing Role In Natural Disaster Relief

Multinationals are taking an increasingly prominent relief role in humanitarian disasters, including those in China. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, has put the subject under its microscope, finding that corporations have become a central component of the international response to natural disasters. The likes of Coca-Cola and Cisco were bigger contributors to Sichuan earthquake relief than the U.S. government (if not bigger donors than the general public). The Center sees the trend as part of an expanding notion of ‘corporate global citizenship’, though in the case of Chinese disasters, it notes, it may be as much smart local brand building.

The Center dates the trend to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It excites policymakers, for all the differences in values and organizational cultures that exist between the private and public sectors. Companies bring cash but also a new disaster assistance network through their globalized and local personnel, supply chains and customers–and a desire to protect all three. Policy makers should remain realistic in their expectations, however. Relief for both domestic and international disasters accounts for less than 3% of all corporate donations, the Center notes.

Each natural disaster is unique in its own way. Beijing had the resources to deal with the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, unlike, say the Haiti government in the wake of the 2010 earthquake there. Yet U.S. corporations still donated an estimated $110 million toward relief of the Sichuan disaster, even if they were seen as “driven by commercial calculation rather than by acute humanitarian concerns”, the Center says. Up to a further $30 million was given via the Red Cross. The U.S. government itself gave just $5 million. The Business Round Table and the U.S.-China Business Council were instrumental in corralling U.S. multinationals to give in Washington’s stead.

Here is a list of the four most generous U.S. corporate donors for the relief of the Sichuan earthquake, one of the five big disasters examined for the Center’s study. The numbers include cash, in-kind donations and employee contributions.

  • Cisco: >$45 million
  • Coca-Cola: $15.6 million
  • Procter & Gamble: $7.6 million
  • Johnson & Johnson: $5 million

Seriously generous numbers.

This is all evolving ad hoc. In the U.S., the Business Civic Leadership Center at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is emerging as the coordination point between the corporate, governmental and non-governmental organization worlds. UN agencies and the Global Economic Forum (Davos) is tickling forward the global agenda. There is interesting cooperation going on between companies and disaster relief agencies to enable corporate management and organizational skills and technologies to be deployed in the field at the time of disaster and to raise the core capacities of relief agencies over the longer term. As was demonstrated in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina, a retailer like Wal-Mart is much more practiced than government disaster management agencies in distributing large volumes of basic supplies to a lot of people quickly. This is all beyond our immediate remit but gone into in some detail in the Center’s report, though the examples are mostly U.S.-centric.

From the ash-gushing Icelandic volcano to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, natural disasters can readily disrupt global supply chains. Disaster risk reduction may not have the feel-good factor of disaster relief for corporate donors, but private-sector engagement in these areas, though still rudimentary, is just as vital. That is not just about social responsibility. It is also, as the report notes, “about economic risk management and the longer-term vitality of consumer societies”.

While business may not be in the business of disasters, it decreasingly stands by, if it ever did, when disaster strikes. For multinationals in China, preparation is understanding where a company can be helpful and at what points in the system it can make their offers of assistance. For Chinese companies abroad, it is something to understand that this is becoming yet another dimension of being a multinational.

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The Cost Of 2011’s Earthquakes

Earthquake economic losses, 2011; Source: CATDAT

China experienced the second largest number of damaging earthquakes last year, 20, after Japan, according to the latest annual report from CATDAT, an Australian database maintained by James Daniell & Armand Vervaeck. That was five more than in 2010. While not matching up to the catastrophes in Japan and New Zealand last year, the economic toll on China was significant, as the CATDAT chart above shows. The most damaging, in terms of economic losses, was the Yingjiang quake in March, at $407 million. The Sikkim quake in September caused an estimated $200 million of damage in Tibet, CATDAT says. By way of comparison, drought, flood and other meteorological disasters caused $48 billion of damage in China last year.

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Disaster Recovery Lessons For Sichuan From The ADB

In a typical year, up to 200 million people are affected by natural disasters in China and 40 million hectares of crops are damaged. The average annual economic impact from disasters, be they earthquakes, typhoons and floods or droughts, is 100 billion yuan ($14.5 billion).

No natural disaster, by officials’ own admittance, has been more challenging to China than the 5-12 Sichuan earthquake of 2008, if nothing else than by dint of its sheer magnitude. The area affected was about the size of South Korea, the number of victims requiring resettlement more than the population of Spain  and the overall number of people affected more than the population of Canada. Similarly unprecedented was the scale of response required.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) asked the Asian Development Bank to see what best-practice recovery essons could be learned from such other large scale natural disasters such as the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the Aceh earthquakes and tsunami of 2004 and 2005 and Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. in 2005.

The ADB has just published its findings. It gives China good marks for its quick response to the disaster, noting that the capacity of policymakers to react quickly to natural disasters is important, as speed of response is a key for restoring market confidence and contributing to a feeling that pressures faced may be temporary. But it also questions decisions such as the one to relocate the county seat of Beichuan, 70% destroyed by the earthquake, to a new city 35 kilometers away. The report says that damaged cities are almost always rebuilt on the same site rather than relocated to safer territory, and that the relocation of a city after an earthquake is “not a simple concept”.

It also notes that the disaster literature abounds with examples of decision- and policy-makers at all levels of government failing to implement essential public safety measures, and then avoiding accountability when failure inevitably occurs. It says:

The PRC appears to be no different: as recently as August 2006, in a keynote speech to mayors at a China Mayors’ Association forum on urban development, Vice-Premier Zeng Peiyan warned that many municipal governments are weak in urban management and disaster prevention, and exhorted mayors to abandon “blind expansion of cities” and to focus on increasing disaster preparedness and prevention. The apparent failure to adhere to building codes for public buildings such as schools supports the Vice-Premier’s statement.

The ADB derives scores of specify lessons from the disasters that it has studied that could be applied to the recovery from the Sichuan cake. All should be required reading for any official and civic leader in any part of China where natural disasters threaten, i.e. pretty much everywhere.

They can be summarized:

  • Inter-governmental coordination is vital:  Each level of government has specific responsibilities in every aspect of disaster management (hazard mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response, disaster recovery). Overall effectiveness, however, can be measured by the degree to which these various components are integrated:
  • Timing is important: Recovery actions initiated too early or too late can have significant downstream implications. Hasty decisions on what and where to relocate typically fall in this category. Similarly, some decisions that are delayed, such as victim compensation measures or new building codes may interfere with smooth recovery procedures.
  • Recovery implies physical, economic and social integration: The desire for rapid physical structural results must be balanced against the need for equitable and sustainable long-term economic and social solutions. Aspects such as livelihood assistance and social integration programs need to be dealt with concurrent with the quality reconstruction of damaged structures.
  • Process and participation is as important as the physical: Disaster recovery is all about re-building communities. Who decides and how decisions are arrived at with respect to physical recovery is of utmost importance.
  • Focus on content as well as construction: Too often the onus is placed on the rapid physical reconstruction of structures, such as school, hospitals and critical service infrastructure, without decisions being made to re-visit content, such whether the school curriculum or teacher training was adequate to meet the wider needs of society, or if underground cabling is better for ‘all-hazards’ risk reduction than overhead wiring, for example, in seismic areas also prone to high wind/severe storms.
  • Incorporate disaster risk reduction components: Disasters do strike twice! Rebuilding after a disaster is an opportunity to get things right the second time around and to “build back better!”

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One Crop Failure From Catastrophe

A peasant is happily showing her harvested wheat in Ganyu County, east China's Jiangsu Province, Oct. 17, 2011.

China’s farmers have been buying land abroad, from Africa to South America, and they should be buying more, according to the prominent Chinese economist David Daokui Li, to forestall a potentially catastrophic grain shortage that faces the country.

Li suggests that it would only take one bad crop to throw the world into food shortage. “We can imagine that with the frequency and severity of natural disasters in China as well as in other parts of the world, the overall global grain output will be decreased, which will pose a potentially grave threat to grain security, leading to worldwide food shortages and resulting in global inflation in food prices,” he says.

Li comments came in an interview published by Insead, the French management school that has a partnership with Tsinghua University, where Li is Director of the Center for China in the World Economy. He is also a member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the People’s Bank of China.

Buying more farm land overseas, Li says, “will not only work towards China’s self-interest, but will also contribute to helping to solve the wider global grain supply problem.”

China’s leadership has been repeatedly expressing its concern about the future of the country’s grain supplies. Regardless of record harvests being reported year after year for seven years despite a string of natural disasters, there is no hiding  the challenges facing China’s growers of wheat, rice and corn. A richer and growing population, urbanization and natural and man-made water shortages have  left supply struggling to keep up with rising demand.

The vulnerability of the country’s harvest, particularly the wheat harvest, increasingly concentrated on the drought-prone North China Plain, is only too clear to see. China is reaching the the edge of its capacity to keep its grain harvests increasing. Agri-technology is still boosting fruit and vegetable yields, but grain may have reached its limits after decades of seed and fertilizer improvement. In addition, grain farming remains inefficiently small scale and labour intensive, as is suggested by the photo above of a farmer from Ganyu County in Jiangsu. Acreage and younger farmers alike are also being lost to towns, exacerbating the longer-running effects of erosion, desertification and other environmental damage.

Stocks and imports have covered the gap with growing demand, forestalling, so far, the sort of shortages that Li fears. China imports more than 4 million tonnes of corn (mainly for animal feed) and more than 1 million tonnes of both wheat and barley a year. But being subject to world commodity markets pushes up prices, and no country likes to feel it can’t be self-sufficient in food, especially when it has an increasing number of mouths to feed.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates China to have 137 million hectares of arable land. China itself reckons 120 million hectares to be the minimum needed to maintain food security. All agree that the hectarage is moving in the direction of the smaller number, with the shrinkage of the area under grain shrinking causing most concern. Better water management, a national priority under the current five year plan, can reclaim some land for farming, but beyond that, as Li suggests, there is only one place to get any more.

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Southwest China’s Drought Now Into Second Year

Dried-up field at drought-affected Xiaoshayi Village of Shilin Yi Autonomous County, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Sept. 7, 2011. Amid bursting coal mines and trembling quakes, it is easy to forget that southwestern China is still suffering from a serious and prolonged drought that started in the autumn of 2009. While more than 14 million people have been affected across the region, nowhere is the situation more serious than in Yunnan, China’s eighth largest province and where the photograph to the left was taken in September. More than 2.3 million people and 1.3 million head of cattle there are now having trouble finding drinking water, provincial vice-governor Kong Chuizhu said earlier this month.

Rainfall in the province this year has been the lowest on record at 841 millimeters as of November 3rd, and 20% below last year’s average level, itself an unusually dry year. Water levels in Yunnan’s ponds and reservoirs are at their lowest for 17 years. Some 821,000 hectares–around a twelfth of the province’s farmland–has become arid with 60,000 hectares so parched it is not expected to yield a crop next season. Yunnan grows rice, wheat and other grains as cash crops and is China’s leading sugar producing province, along with neighboring Guangxi Zhuang. Agriculture is Yunnan’s most important economic activity, with an estimated 80-95% of the labor force working on the land in farming that is highly intensive as so much of the province is mountainous and forested.

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A Disastrous Half Year

With the death toll in Tibet from the recent northern Indian earthquake reaching seven, it is timely to remember that it has been a horrible year for disasters, and earthquakes in particular. Those in Japan and New Zealand were especially tragic and costly. Swiss Re, a reinsurance company, has completed its half yearly preliminary estimate of the cost of natural and manmade disasters worldwide. January to June saw economic losses of $278 billion, up from $166 billion in the same period of 2010. The Japanese quake and tsunami accounted for three quarters of the losses in the first half this year. Insured losses were $70 billion, up from $29 billion a year earlier. It was the second worse first half of the year since Sigma started keeping track.

Despite the severe drought and flooding in various parts of China in the first half of this year (and continuing into the second half, with the death toll topping 100 and more flooding possible as southern coasts brace  for Typhoons Nesat and Haitang), the country escaped the worst wrath of the weather. No Chinese event made the list of the five costliest disasters of the first half. However, one does in terms of the heaviest cost of all, life. The floods and landslides in June killed 305 people, which is fourth on Sigma’s list after the Japanese earthquake (20,362 victims), January’s floods and earthquakes in Brazil (>900) and the severe storms and tornadoes in the U.S. in April (354).

At this point, Swiss Re’s tally does not include what it calls “the full humanitarian and economic consequences of severe drought that caused wildfires and crop losses” in several parts of the world, including China. The full year report will likely make for grim reading.

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Death Toll From China’s Rains Hits 70

The death toll from rain-triggered floods and landslides in central China has risen to 70 with 32 others missing, officials now say. The National Disaster Reduction Commission says more than 21 million people across eight provinces are now affected by the unusually late and heavy summer monsoon rains deluging Sichuan, Shaanxi, Henan, Chongqing, Hubei, Shandong, Shanxi and Gansu. Direct economic damages are put at an estimated 26 billion yuan ($4 billion). Hubei, Shaanxi and Sichuan have borne the brunt of it.

In the worst incident, a landslide that buried a brick factory and partially destroyed as ceramics plant in Baqiao, a suburb of Shaanxi’s provincial capital, Xian, 27 people are now reported dead with a further five missing. Rescue teams continue to recover bodies. (Update: The final death toll has been confirmed at 32 with the recovery of the last missing body on Tuesday, four days after the landslide.)

Meanwhile, the highest flood crest so far this year on the rain-swollen Yangtze river reached the Three Gorges Dam on Wednesday morning, raising the water level to 164 meters, 20 meters above the alert level.

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