Lessons Of Beijing’s Floods

Photo taken on July 22, 2012 shows the waterlogged Nangangwa section of the Beijing-Hong Kong-Macao expressway in Fengtai District of Beijing, capital of China. The heaviest rain in six decades in the Chinese capital has left 10 people dead, Beijing authorities said Sunday. (Xinhua/Zheng Yong)
The flooding that hit Beijing a week ago (above) was a freak. The rains that caused it were the heaviest in 60 years. Severe weather, certainly, but not beyond the bounds of what a national capital should be prepared to deal with. And certainly not with as heavy a loss of life, 77 dead. It has revealed weaknesses in urban planning, construction, infrastructure and emergency management. “We must seriously reflect on these lessons and always bear them in mind,” Guo Jinlong, Party boss in the city, says. Quite.

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, especially those of cities in developing economies. But beyond the human costs are the economic disruption as transportation, communications networks and electricity supplies, the arteries of modern cities, are put at risk of seizing up. Authorities’s preliminary estimate of the economic cost of the recent floods in Beijing is 2.26 billion yuan ($360 million).

Over the past 30 years, floods have been getting bigger and more frequent around the world but no region has been more affected than the Asia-Pacific and no country in the region more than China. (A list of Asia’s worst floods since 2000 is here.) More than 100 million Chinese have moved from inland areas to flood-prone coastal cities in the past quarter of a century. Yet China has only recently started to shift its emphasis from reacting to urban flooding to preventing it, and, as it happens, at about the same stage in its development as Japan started to do three decades ago. Taiwan and South Korea have also since followed suit.

Floods in cities are both more costly and difficult to manage than those in the countryside. Building adequate main sewers and storm water drains to manage urban rainwater is straightforward enough in greenfield developments. The difficulties lie with older built-up areas. There sewers and storm drains are often old and inadequate, run-offs from hard surfaces absent, ground storage for rainwater scarce and ancient streams that could carry rainwater to rivers and ponds that could help it find its way to acquirers below, filled in. An irony of the Beijing floods is that the aquifer below the city is drier than ever. Redressing these problems are huge engineering tasks that cities cannot complete overnight. But starts have to be made. Beyond that are longer-term policy issues of not allowing development in flood-prone areas, giving local districts within cities the information to make their own local anti-flooding preparations, and making cities greener so they are less encouraging to extreme weather.

From 2011 to 2020, China’s investment in water conservancy projects, including flood defenses, is expected to reach 4 trillion yuan ($617 billion), almost four times as much as that spent during the previous 10 years. Yet nature has provided lakes and floodplains to do the same job. An important part of fighting floods, and one of China’s other perpetual natural disasters, drought, is the protection, restoration and reconnection of lakes, ponds, streams and floodplains so they can do what they do best: take in water when the river is high and give it back when it is low. Rivers and lakes cannot be infinitely sacrificed or bent to man’s will in the name of economic development. Urban planners have only just started to apply the lessons of that. China’s developers will have to be made to, too.


Filed under Environment

3 responses to “Lessons Of Beijing’s Floods

  1. cindy lemcke-hoong

    The point is not about lessons-learned for decision makers or developers, the point is we, the human race, has to learn to want less. What facing China now is going to happen in countries such as Laos, Burma, Vietnam, the African continent because China is encouraging these countries to build more hydro-electric dams, more while elephants buildings,

    There is a saying in China – Yu-Kuong moves the mountain. It is about an old man and his children and children’s children tried to move a mountain which blocks their home from the other side of the township (hope I am telling the right story, Memory is fading with old age). Some of the gigantic constructions China made the past 10, 20 years seems wanting to proof the spirit of Yu-Kuong — 3 Gorges, rail-way to Tibet. The discussions about Yu-Kuong has always been — is he stupid or clever? Perhaps China should look at the flip side of Yu-Kuong’s spirit.

    • China Bystander

      I think there is a growing appreciation on the part of the leadership (if not yet all officials) and certainly of many citizens that untrammeled growth with no regard to its environmental impact is no longer a path that China can travel down. The air is dirty, water undrinkable and in short supply, farmland is being concreted over to the point where China risks being unable to feed itself. Massive infrastructure projects are altering the environment in adverse ways that were never considered when the projects were started, and the dash for growth was all. If the Three Gorges were to be proposed today, I don’t think it would be built, or, if it were to be, it would take a very different form. The increasing number of local protests over the adverse environmental impact of development, such as the successful one against a proposal to build a wastewater pipeline in Qidong, indicate how attitudes are changing inside the country. You do have a fair point, though, about the overseas projects being undertaken by China’s dam builders, now the world’s biggest. We have written in particular about the problems they are running into in Myanmar. Local communities there are protesting mega hydroelectric schemes such as Myitsone even though the country is chronically short of electrical power. Nature is not infinitely bendable to man’s will.

  2. Pingback: Storing Beijing’s Storm Water Before It Does Harm | China Bystander

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