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2010: China’s Year In Catastrophes, Part II

In a review of natural disasters in 2010, the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, lists last year’s severe flooding across much of China and the drought earlier in the year as the two worst natural disasters of 2010 as measured by the number of people affected, 134 million and 60 million respectively. The flooding in Jilin takes seventh spot on its list with a further 6 million affected.

Measured by deaths the Qinghai earthquake was the third most deadly natural disaster of the year, killing 2,968, with landslides (1,765 deaths) and the floods (1,691 deaths) the fifth and sixth most fatal. Overall, no country was more affected by natural disasters in 2010 than China, with 22 recorded. India was next with 16.

We have chronicled may of these, most recently from a list of natural and man-made disasters furnished by the international insurance company, Swiss Re. The Brookings’ report draws its numbers and definitions from the World Health Organization-sponsored Emergency Events Database.

The Brookings report blames the severe nature of the weather in China in 2010 on the shift in June and July from El Nino to La Nina in the Pacific, which disrupts the large-scale ocean-atmospheric circulation patterns in the tropics, affecting weather around the globe, and in China’s case causing drought in the first half of the year followed by flooding in mid-year.

The economic cost of the floods and landslides is put at $18 billion, second only to the earthquake in Chile ($30 billion) and almost twice the cost of the flooding in Pakistan, which gained much greater international attention–and relief support–though it affected only 20 million people.

While China traditionally does not ask for international aid for its natural disasters, believing it has sufficient means and capacities to deal with such events, the contrast in the numbers to others of the year’s big disasters is staggering. The Haiti earthquake triggered $3.5 billion in international humanitarian funding; the Qinghai earthquake $7.3 million. Pakistan’s floods raised $2.2 billion in such aid; China’s floods, $150,000. Looked at another way, that worked out to $121.67 for each person affected by Pakistan’s flooding versus one tenth of one cent for each person in China so affected.

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2010: China’s Year In Catastrophes

China suffered the third and fourth most fatal natural disasters of 2010 after the Haiti earthquake and the heatwave in Russia and eastern Europe. The Qinghai earthquake in April took 2,968 lives. Widespread flooding and mudslides across the country between late May and August killed 2,490 people. A further 1,765 people died after a mudslide in August destroyed 67 buildings in Zhouqu in Gansu, itself the sixth most fatal disaster in the world last year.

The Zhouqu mudslide alone caused 5 billion yuan ($765 million) worth of damage, according to insurance company Swiss Re. In its annual review of the world’s natural catastrophes and man-made disasters, it says that the widespread flooding and mudslides of the summer caused 345 billion yuan worth of damage, affected 230 million people across 28 provinces and left 15 million homeless. Sixteen million hectares of farmland were destroyed.

Insurance covered only 5 billion yuan ($761 million) of the losses, Swiss Re says, leaving individuals, the government and NGOs to pick up the tab for the rest. Similarly, the earthquake in Qinghai resulted in insured claims of less than $1 million.

The table below chronicles, event by event, a grim year at the hands of both nature and man. Inevitably the list of mining accidents is long.

Natural Catastrophes and Man-Made Disasters, 2010
Date Place Event Damage
Mar 10 Shannxi Landslide caused by heavy snow; 25 houses destroyed 27 dead, 152 homeless
May 29-Aug 31 Fujian, Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan, Yunnan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan, Guizhou, Anhui, Shaanxi, Gansu Floods and landslides caused by heavy monsoonal rain; >2m houses destroyed, >5m damaged, >16m hectares of farmland destroyed; up to 28 provinces affected At least 1,724 dead, at least 766 missing, 15.2m homeless; 345bn yuan total damage, 5bn yuan insured loss
Aug 8-Sep 8 Gansu, Zhouqu Mudslide caused by heavy rain; 67 buildings, 200 hectares of cropland, water pipes, electricity lines destroyed 1,481 dead, 284 missing, 47,000 homeless; 5bn yuan total damage, 18m yuan insured loss
Sep 30-Oct 6 Hainan Floods caused by heavy rains; 182 towns submerged 1 dead, 3 missing; 1.1bn yuan total damage
May 5-24 Chongqing, Hunan, Guangdong, Jiangzi, Guizhou, Anhui, Hubei Storm winds up to 110 kph, heavy rain, floods 115 dead, 21 missing, 160 injured; 5.9bn total damage, 130m yuan insured losss
Jul 13-17 Hainan Island, Southern China, Philippines, Vietnam Typhoon Conson/No 1 with winds up to 120 kph, heavy rains; 3,691 houses, 1,3000 hectares of riceland destroyed *114 dead, 52 missing, 31 injured; $145m total damage
Jul 22 Southern China, Hong Kong, Vietnam Typhoon Chanthu/No 3 with winds up to 126 kph, heavy rains, floods, 2,915 houses destroyed in China *14 dead, 5 injured, 2.4bn total damage
Sep 9 Shishi City, Fujian, Zheijiang Typhoon Meranti with winds up to 100 kph; heavy rains, damage to cropland 3 dead, 186,000 homeless, 800m yuan total damage
Sep 19-21 Fujian, Guangdong, Taiwan Typhoon Fanapi/No 11 with winds up to 169 kph, heavy rain, floods, landslides; 66.4m hectares of crops flooded, 16,000 houses collapsed; landslide caused damage to a tin mine causing water pollution 135 dead, 61 missing, 128,000 homeless; $800 million total damage, $69m insured loss
Oct 17-23 Fujian, Taiwan, Philippines Super Typhoon Megi with winds up to 220 kph, floods, mudslides; 30,048 houses destroyed *46 dead, at least 4 missing, 42 injured; $701m total damage, $100m insured losses
Apr 14 Tibet, Qinghai, Yushu, Jiegu Magnitude 6.9 earthquake, aftershocks 2,698 dead, 270 missing, 12,000 injured, 100,000 homeless; 670m yuan total damage, 4m yuan insured losses
Drought, Bush Fires, Heat Waves
Jan 1-Jun 1 Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, Guangxi Drought; millions of hectares of farmland destroyed 237 bn yuan total damage
May 12-Jun 12 Sichuan Grassland fires spread by strong dry winds 22 dead
Cold, Frost
Jan 1-19 Xinjiang Heavy snow, avalanches, cold temperatures of -45˚C 20 dead, 1,100 injured; 650m yuan total damage
Feb 28-Mar 1 Shangdong Heavy snow; 5,883 houses and 66,310 hecatares of farmland destroyed 1.6bn yuan total damage
Major Fires, Explosions
Apr 1 Hebei Gas pipeline leak at steel plant 21 dead
Feb 26 Guangdong Fire and explosion at fireworks factory 23 dead, 48 injured
Aug 16 Heilongjiang Explosion at illegal fireworks factory 20 dead, 4 missing, 153 injured
Nov 15 Shanghai Fire at 28-storey residential building 58 dead, 71 injured
Aviation Disasters
Oct 24 Yichun Lindu Airport Embraer 190LR crashes upon landing 42 dead
Maritime Disasters
Dec 16-19 South China Sea 22 fishing vessels capsize due to strong winds *5 dead, 51 missing
Mining Accidents
Jan 6 Hunan Fire at coal mine 30 dead
Mar 1-15 Inner Mongolia Flood at coal mine after heavy rain 32 dead
Mar 15 Henan Fire at coal mine 25 dead
Mar 28 Shanxi Flooding of coal mine 38 dead, 115 injured
Mar 31 Place Gas explosion at coal mine At least 43 dead
May 13 Guizhou Gas explosion at illegal coal mine 21 dead
Jun 21 Henan Explosion at coal mine 47 dead
Jul 17 Shaanxi Fire at coal mine 28 dead
Aug 6 Lingnan Fire at gold mine 23 dead
Oct 16 Henan Gas explosion at coal mine 37 dead
Dec 7 Henan Explosion at coal mine 26 dead
Collapse of Buildings/Bridges
Jul 24 Henan Collapsed bridge due to overcrowding 49 dead, 17 missing
* figures for struck region, not just China; Source: Natural Catastrophes And Man-Made Disasters in 2010, Swiss Re, March 2011

Update: 2010 China’s Year In Catastrophes, Part II

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Hundreds Of Quakes Continue To Jolt Asia

Two 7.0 magnitude earthquakes struck northeastern Myanmar within a minute of each other today (the red box on the map above), not too far from the area in southwestern China hit by a 5.8 magnitude quake on March 10 which has left at least 26 dead in Yunnan. There are no reports yet of casualties or damage from the latest quakes, which occurred in a sparsely populated and remote part of Myanmar (see update below).

Meanwhile, aftershocks continue in Japan in the wake of the devastating 9.0 Sendai quake. The map above, which is from the United States Geological Survey, shows quite how seismically active Asia is right now. It plots all earthquakes of greater than 2.5 magnitude in the past week. There have been 236 of them.

Update: Xinhua says that more than 6,500 people in parts of Yunnan bordering Myanmar have been affected by the quakes in Myanmar, though there are no reports of serious injury. As of midday Friday, the quakes had left a reported 74 dead and at least 111 injured in Myanmar itself.

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China’s Nuclear Energy Program Post-Fukushima

The crisis still unfolding at Japan’s devastated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors will have a huge impact on the global nuclear industry. That will not only be in terms of the running of existing reactors and the design and location of future ones, but also in the reevaluation of nuclear’s place in energy policies.

Europe has already started that process. Germany is shutting down reactors; Spain, Russia and the U.K. are ordering safety reviews. China has now followed the U.S. in suspending the approval process for new nuclear power stations so that safety standards can be reexamined. Beijing has also said it will revise its standards for the safety management of nuclear plants without giving any detail about what those revisions might entail.

Fukushima is unlike Chernobyl or even Three Mile Island in that the damage was caused by a natural disaster, whereas the other two were to varying degrees a result of human error. But seismic risks, including tsunamis, are highly relevant in many  parts of the world with expanding nuclear programs to satisfy growing energy needs such as southeastern Europe, India, Iran, Turkey, the U.S. and, of course, China, which accounts for 40% of the world’s nuclear power plants currently under construction. This Asian slice of a U.N.-sponsored seismic risk map, below, shows the most hazardous areas, in the dark red.

Caixin has a map of where China’s existing and planned nuclear power plants are here which you can easily overlay in your mind on the map above, while The Wall Street Journal has a map plotting them against China’s fault lines here.

Beijing has already said it doesn’t plan to alter its plans to build new reactors. The new five-year plan proposes a fourfold expansion of the country’s nuclear power generation capacity from 10 gigawatts (less than 2% of the country’s current electricity generation) to 40 gigawatts. Last year Beijing approved 34 new nuclear power plants to add 37 gigawatts of  capacity. Work has started on 26 six of those units, accounting for 78% of the planned new capacity. The newly announced safety review is likely to mean no more than a pause for breath.

Liu Tienan, chief of China’s National Energy Bureau, does say that China has much to learn from Japan’s crisis, particularly about safety. Modern reactors, so called Generation 3 reactors, are more safely designed than Generation 1 and 2 reactors, the type in use at Fukushima. Generation 3 reactors use a passive cooling system that does not require electricity to run. They may well have survived the Sendai earthquake and tsunami in tact. It was the loss of electric power needed to run the cooling system and its back-ups that put the reactors at risk, not the direct impact of the quake and tsunami. That said plenty of wars have been lost by generals refighting the last one.

China is pursuing home-grown nuclear power generation technology based on what it is transferring from American, French and Japanese nuclear companies (no one really knows what is going on in China’s military nuclear program). On the civilian side, the AP1000 reactors Beijing has chosen for construction on the east coast and plans to build further inland are a Generation III design. They are also being used for 14 proposed reactors in the U.S. The design has been approved by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but there remain some concerns about its safety, particularly its capacity to survive being hit by an aircraft.

No power generation system will ever be 100% safe. When nuclear goes wrong, it tends to go catastrophically wrong. Predicting what could trigger that catastrophe will never be a 100% science, either. In 2003, the Japanese Nuclear Commission was set this safety target:

The mean value of acute fatality risk by radiation exposure resultant from an accident of a nuclear installation to individuals of the public, who live in the vicinity of the site boundary of the nuclear installation, should not exceed the probability of about 1×10^6 per year.

1×10^6 is a million. Japan’s once-in-a-million-years event happened just eight years later.

China’s nuclear program has had its safety issues in the past, and Fukushima will give more strength to the voices raising concerns about nuclear safety. But the country’s need to generate ever more power to fuel growth and to meet a self-imposed goal of generating 15% of its energy needs using non-fossil fuels by 2020 means it is unlikely to scale back its nuclear program, even if it slows the pace of development. Beijing can convince itself that the safety issues can be handled (even if convincing its citizens is another matter, and that may depend on how Fukushima turns out). Its biggest impediment is, as it is everywhere for nuclear, cost. Reactors are expensive to build and have histories of expensive project delays. The country is looking at a potential bill of $150 billion over the next decade for its nuclear program, more if the safety review imposes additional safety-related costs. Meanwhile, there are less expensive alternatives, such as gas, and in future renewables developing rapidly. The future pace of the development of China’s nuclear energy program won’t be decided on safety alone.


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The Stress Of Earthquake Rescue: Lessons From Sichuan

Word arrives from our man in Australia about long-term health problems being suffered by rescue workers involved in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Dr Wei Qiang Zhang from the Beijing Military General Hospital and Dr George Liu from Latrobe University in Melbourne led a team of Chinese and Australian researchers who looked at the after effects on 1,187 soldiers deployed to the rescue and relief operations. They found a high incidence of health problems including fatigue and depression as well as physical ailments such as skin and respiratory problems and abdominal pain and diarrhea. The results are reported in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.

Liu makes the point that soldiers, because of their military training, are in better shape to deal with rescue efforts than civilian volunteers, who, he believes, are much more likely to suffer mental or physical harm in such circumstances as they lack the professional training to cope with the stress of long hours and arduous often dangerous conditions. However, he also notes that the soldiers fared worse than other professionals such as fire-fighters and Red Cross workers because they were less well equipped, lacking in particular protective clothing and masks.


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Insuring Against Earthquakes, Floods And Typhoons

China is underinsured. At least when it comes to catastrophes. A new working paper from the World Bank proposes the government creates an insurance fund to cover the part of the population that most suffers from floods, typhoons and earthquakes.

The Bank reckons the direct property damage from these natural disasters to be typically $15 billion a year. Add in the costs of business disruption and disaster relief and the number jumps significantly. Add in further a devastating ‘quake such as last year’s one in Wenchuan and the cost tops $100 billion.

Yet only 5% of property in China is insured, mainly commercial and industrial premises. The Bank says only one in 100 private dwellings is insured. Given the magnitude of the potential losses, and the domestic insurance industry’s limited capacity to write business against them, the Bank proposes a national catastrophe insurance fund, the China Catasrophe Insurance Pool, to cover all private property and all small and medium sized enterprises against initially earthquakes in return for a mandatory premium.

The pool would act as a national aggregator of the risk but its management and insurance operations would be outsourced to the private sector. This is not an original idea in as much as similar insurance schemes exist in places such as New Zealand and California.


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The Cost of A Year Of Catastrophes

The heavy rains that brought deadly floods and mudslides earlier this year are a fading memory. But a sobering reminder of the devastation they caused across 28 provinces, particularly in human life, comes from the preliminary version of an annual assessment by the reinsurance company Swiss Re of the costs of catastrophes around the world.

It counts 260,000 deaths from natural catastrophes and man-made disasters this year, making it the deadliest since 1976. The overwhelming majority of them (220,000) occurred as a result of the Haiti earthquake. But three of the five most deadly occurred in China; the summer floods that killed 2,480; the Qinghai earthquake in April and its aftershocks  that killed 2,280; and the autumn flooding that killed 1,785. The two other events in the top six were the summer heatwave in Russia that killed 15,000 and the floods in Pakistan that killed 1,980.

None of the Chinese catastrophes were among the most costly to the insurance industry; the earthquake in Chile cost it $8 billion, almost a quarter of its total payout, to top the list of the most costly insured catastrophes of the year. By comparison the May 2008 quake in Sichuan, which killed 87,500 people, cost the insurance industry $372 million. Much of the destroyed property, typical of rural areas, would have been uninsured. The same is likely to have been true for this year’s Qinghai quake and floods. Only 1%-2% of the estimated $135 billion of total economic losses caused by the 10 largest floods in the country since 1980 was insured, according to a recent study by another reinsurer, Munich Re.

Swiss Re reckons total economic losses from catastrophes around the world this year will be $222 billion, more than triple 2009’s $63 billion. We’ll be able to see Swiss Re’s figure for China alone when the full report is published early next year. We expect that to be in the high tens of billions of dollars.

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Hu Holds A Monk’s Hand

Usually Uncle Wen  undertakes these tasks but it is President Hu Jintao who has visited Qinghai, where the death toll from last week’s earthquake has now passed 1,700. Hu cut short an official visit to South America. Amidst the no doubt carefully orchestrated coverage of him holding injured children and visiting displaced families and rescue workers, was footage of him grasping the hand of a monk, a highly pointed gesture in a region where Tibetan resentment over Han rule runs deep, and a reaching-out that will make it easier to rebuff the Dalai Lama’s request to visit the site to comfort victims.

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Another Great Quake Rocks Western China

Given how sparsely populated much of far western China is, the 6.9 earthquake that has struck in Qinghai  on the Tibetan plateau has caused extensive devastation, even though the number of fatalities reported initially is relatively low at 400. One in ten of the stricken area’s population has been injured. Both figures are expected to rise as many remain buried under the debris. Destruction of property, including the collapse of at least one school, killing five children, is widespread, which will draw inevitable comparisons with the 2008 Sichuan quake. The remoteness of the area, foul weather and a series of strong aftershocks is hampering rescue efforts for what has been the strongest quake to have hit the remote mountainous area since 1976.

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Hundreds Of Thousands Left Homeless By Yunnan Quake

Another big quake, this one in Yunnan on Thursday, though word of its extent is only now getting out. Latest estimates are that 250,000 have been left homeless by what Xinhua reports was a 6.0 quake on the Richter Scale with its epicenter in Yaoan county, a remote and mountainous region 200 kilometers west of the provincial capital Kunming. One person is reported dead and more than 325 injured (via Reuters). A large scale relief operation is underway (via Xinhua).

This snapshot of a locator map is via ReliefWeb‘s page on the natural disaster.

Yunnan quake

Update: Below is a snapshot of a later more detailed Red Cross map of the struck area:

Yunnan Quake  IFRC Map

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