Tag Archives: landslides

China’s Pressing Need To Prevent Industrial Accidents

Landslide at industrial zone in Shenzhen, December 2015

The deadly landslide that engulfed part of the Hengtaiyu Industrial Park in Shenzhen was, on the basis of the early reports, a man-made disaster. It would appear that a mountain of mud composed of illegally dumped construction waste piled up over a quarry over the past two years became unstable. It then, in the parlance of civil engineers, ‘spilled over’.

A torrent of soil slammed into 33 industrial and dormitory buildings just before noon, and also ruptured the West-to-East natural gas pipeline causing an explosion. Some 900 people evacuated. Three are said to have been injured, but at least 91 were reported missing as of Monday morning, presumably buried under the mud that is estimated to cover more than 60,000 square meters to a depth of 6 meters (see photo above).

The attention the massive rescue effort is getting from the highest levels —  President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang have sent urgent instructions to provincial and local authorities — indicates the political threat such disasters potentially hold — and underlines the shortcomings in the approach to hazard management.

Complaints by residents about illegal dumping went unheard or were ignored by Shenzhen officials. Shoddy building compounded the damage. The two factors exacerbate a view that untrammeled economic development has been at the expense of citizen well-being.

That is not a view that the Party can tolerate. In this case, local officials will, no doubt, be found to take the blame. In the longer-term, industrial safety legislation will have to be enforced to prevent industrial accidents taking the toll they currently do.

The Shenzhen landslide was just as much a man-made disaster as the series of massive blasts at a hazardous-materials warehouse in Tianjin that killed more than 100 people in August or the explosion that ripped through a chemical factory in Changzhou in Jiangsu Province earlier in the month. Or the fireball at a petrochemical factory in Rizhao in Shandong Province the previous month. Or the succession of accidents in China’s mines stretching back. At least 750 people have died in industrial accidents in the construction, manufacturing and mining sectors this year.

Employers will always push the boundaries of health and safety legislation — of which China has plenty. But it requires diligent local officials to enforce those rules. Of those, China is lacking.

The most effective industrial safety policy is a preventative health and safety culture.  Good practice on work safety standardization is more prevalent than it was a  decade ago, but it remains the exception rather than the rule. And it requires resources and political will at the local level to enforce it. We wish the extraordinary rescue effort in Shenzhen every success, but residents would have been better served by it not being necessary in the first place.

Sadly, we fear we will be saying the same after the next large industrial accident, and repeating it until the political attitude changes to one that says the Party best shows that it is looking after citizens by preventing preventable industrial accidents in the first place rather than by rushing to clean up the mess afterwards.

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China’s Natural-Disaster Displacement Risk Quantified

China: Disaster-related displacement, 1970-2013. Source: IDMC

China: Disaster-related displacement, 1970-2013. Source: IDMC

CHINA ACCOUNTS FOR a disproportionate share of the world’s disaster-related displacement. That is not only a function of the size of its population. The country is at high-risk of being stricken by drought, seasonal floods, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides induced by the latter two.

Drought and cyclones are the most costly; earthquakes and floods the big killers. Some 130 million inhabitants are exposed to these risks. More than 8 million of them every year are at risk of being displaced, according to a new analysis of regional displacement risk by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

Disaster-induced displacement has been increasing and is likely to continue to do so. For one, population growth and the increased concentration of people and economic activity in hazard-prone areas such as coastlines and river deltas are swelling the numbers of people exposed to natural hazards.

Second, better early warning systems and evacuation planning means that more people survive disasters even as their homes and property are damaged or destroyed. Third, climate change is making extreme weather both more frequent and severe.

The richer a country gets, the more resilient it is to natural disasters, not least of all because it has more to lose, so they take steps to protect what they have. Yet though they suffer fewer natural disasters those that do occur are more severe.

Since 2008, China has suffered three disasters that displaced more than 3 million people, five that displaced 1 million-3 million people and 34  that displaced between 100,000 and 1 million people.

All that helps explain why China has the highest absolute risk of disaster-related displacement in the region. It also ranks second in relative displacement for its population size — 6,082 displacements per million residents, after Laos’s 6,542 displacements per million inhabitants.

The IDMC predicts that over the next four years that the average number of displaced will rise to nearly 9 million and the per million ratio will rise to Laos’s current level.  Its study, which is regional, is intended to provide a forecast to help planners not so much to deal with natural disasters as to forestall their worst effects.

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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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Floods And Landslides Hit Hubei

According to Hubei's Office of Flood and Drought Control, the floodwaters have affected 42,000 people in the region

Torrential rains have hit part of Hubei, causing landslides and disrupting road transport. More than 40,000 people across 14 counties in the west of the province have been affected with some 300 homes in the inundated areas being damaged, officials say. One person died after a house collapsed. Another is reported missing. More heavy rain is forecast over the next couple of days, but this is also expected to bring some relief to the drought persisting in southern and southwestern China.

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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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More Rains Trigger New Landslides

More torrential rain in the northwest has triggered renewed deadly landslides in the region and is severely hampering rescue work at Zhouqu (below), where new mudslides have blocked roads making it difficult to bring in supplies and equipment to the remote mountain town while emergency shelters have been flooded.

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With 600 still missing in Zhouqu, concerns are increasing among public health officials that undiscovered bodies and dead animals buried under the mud are increasing the risk of disease from contaminated water. The official death toll from last weekend’s inundation of Zhougu is now put at 1,144. Authorities report a further 24 killed elsewhere in Gansu and five further south in Sichuan as a result of the latest landslides.

The debate about the extent to which these are natural or man-made disasters is growing. The latest landslides occurred in regions where there has been extensive illegal logging on mountains already unstable because of the construction of small hydroelectric dams, mining  and road building, and weakened further by the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. “The tragedy in Zhouqu is a reflection of the challenges and risks economic growth brings to poor regions,” Li Yan, a campaigner for Greenpeace China, told the French news agency.”Local governments are under pressure to alleviate poverty and develop the economy. In that process, there is environmental damage and degradation.”

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Thick Mud Hampers Zhouqu Rescue Efforts

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Rescuers are facing mud and sludge more than a meter thick as they continue to search for survivors from the deadly landslide that engulfed the town of Zhouqu (above) in Gansu at the weekend. The death toll has been raised at least 337 with 1,148 missing, many feared buried, making it the worst individual disaster caused by the torrential rains that have battered the country this year. “There were some, but very few, survivors,” one resident told the Associated Press. “Most of them are dead, crushed into the earth.”

Initial landslides caused by the rains swept mud and debris into the Bailong River, blocking it upstream of the town and creating a 3 kilometer long lake. When this overflowed early Sunday morning, it sent waves of water, mud and rocks cascading down the narrow river valley, washing away sleeping villages before hitting the town. With more rainfall in the forecast, draining the barrier lake is a priority.

Some 40,000 residents have been evacuated. Authorities have flown in more than 5,000 tents to provide temporary shelter for survivors. Some 4,500 troops are helping the rescue and relief effort. Military helicopters are flying the seriously injured to hospitals in the provincial capital Lanzhou.

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Deadly Flood And Landslide Risks Return

The dangers of rain-swollen rivers bursting dams and embankments never really went away even after authorities recently said the worst of the recent rains that have inundated southern and eastern China were abating. Now millions are at risk along the Yangtze River, Xinhua reports, and meteorologists are saying the rains will resume imminently bring more floods and deadly landslides to the south and east of the country.

In northwestern Qinghai province, thousands have been evacuated downstream of the Wenquan reservoir which, thanks to snow melt as well as the rains, is now holding three times its safe capacity of water. Emergency teams are cutting relief channels to lower the water level. The reservoir’s retaining dam is said to have been badly maintained, not an uncommon story. If it gives way, Golmud, a city of 200,000 people 130 kms away could be under 4 meters of water.

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Southern Rains Declared Done, But Danger Not Passed

As the heatwave stifling north and east China now reaches parts of the south, too, flood control officials have declared the seasonal rain storms that have caused devastating flooding and deadly landslides across 11 southern provinces over the past month to have come to an end. The rains, described as the worst in five years, have left 266 people dead with 199 more missing. Rain-triggered mudslides were responsible for four out of five of those killed or missing. More than 44 million people are said to have been effected and a third of a million homes destroyed. The direct economic damage is put at 65 billion yuan ($9.5 billion). Swollen rivers and weakened dams and embankments remain a danger.

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Death Toll From Guangxi Rain Storms Rises

An update to the death toll from the flooding and landslides in Guangxi: Xinhua now says at least 51 people are dead with two unaccounted for following this week’s rain storms. Thirty of the deaths were recorded after rain-triggered mudslides buried several homes in mountainside villages in Yulin City.

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