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.
As eastern China battened down in the face of Typhoon Muifa, officials have counted up the devastation caused by natural disasters in July: at least 204 dead and 43.6 billion yuan ($6.75 billion) in economic losses, with 7 million hectares of crops damaged. Inner Mongolia, Shandong, Sichuan and Shannxi were hardest hit by floods and landslides, while the drought in Guizhou and Hunan became more severe. July’s death toll followed the 279 who had died as a result of natural disasters in June, which took the total for the first half of this year to at least 449. During those six months, China was hit by seven 5.0-plus magnitude earthquakes while the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze river experienced their heaviest rainfall in more than half a century.
A large portion of the deaths in July were caused by lightening strikes, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, without giving a number. In June, 15 people died after being hit by lightening, the ministry had said earlier. Such fatalities have been on the decline since 2007 when lightening killed 744 people, mostly farmers caught in thunderstorms and unable to find shelter, making it the third most deadly type of natural disaster after floods and mudslides that year. Even so, we estimate, some 300 people were killed by lightening last year. Early warning systems for severe storms have been improved, but cover only 85% of China’s rural areas. It is not expected that the percentage will reach 90% until 2015.
The pause for breath in China’s ambitious nuclear development program announced following the crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plants appears to have been no more than a single intake of air. Barely a week after Beijing suspended approvals of all new nuclear power projects until a safety review is carried out, Bloomberg reports that work will start next month on a planned fourth-generation nuclear power plant at Rongcheng in Shandong.
Cui Shaozhang, deputy general manager at Huaneng Nuclear Power Development Co., a subsidiary of state-owned China Huaneng Group, China’s largest power group, said it would be the world’s first high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor. The Rongcheng plant will use helium in its cooling system, and its reactor cores are said to be able to withstand temperatures exceeding 1,600℃ for several hundred hours without melting down. “Japan’s Fukushima plant was using old technology while Chinese reactors are more advanced,” Cai is quoted as saying–words, this Bystander hopes, that will never come back to haunt him.
Three months of drought across the North China Plain is leaving millions short of drinking water, Xinhua reports. There are concerns that the situation will worsen. Lack of rain has affected the wheat growing belt across six provinces from Shandong on the coast to Shanxi in the center of the country. Hebei has had only 2 mms of rain since November, 80% less than normal. Shandong is said to be facing its worst drought in a century. Fire trucks are delivering drinking water to residents.
A fifth of the farmland planted to winter wheat on the North China Plain, some 2 million hectares, has been affected by the drought. Direct economic losses are put at more than 1 billion yuan, with more to come as there is no relief to the drought in sight. Cloud seeding to induce rain and snow is likely.
The government, concerned about the effect of the prolonged drought on the spring harvest of the winter wheat crop, has already allocated 4 billion yuan ($607 billion) for farm irrigation and rural water conservation. Last week, following a State Council meeting on the current drought chaired by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, it allocated a further 2.2 billion yuan to drought relief. Wen visited drought affected areas in Henan last week.
Urbanization and industrialization is a filthy business. Industry pollutes. More of it just pollutes more. As nation after nation has gone through the industrialization phase of rapid development, each has had to trade-off the benefits of growth and their environmental costs. China is no exception, but it puts great store on being green. We are directed to a new article published by McKinsey & Co., the firm of management consultants, which asks the question, how green are China’s cities. Its answer? The country’s push for sustainable urban development shows mixed results. As a whole, China’s cities don’t meet global benchmarks for sustainability, but things are getting better and there are examples of successes for the laggards to follow.
The article is based on a paper first published last year by a joint team from the firm, Tsinghua University and New York’s Columbia University. Its Urban Sustainability Index uses data from 2004-2008 and covers 112 cities in China. It groups 18 indicators in to five categories, from the provision of basic needs such as clean water to political and policy commitment to sustainability.
The commonalities among the successful cities were “an unwavering focus on industrial restructuring, designing sensible transit systems and green space, pushing improvements through standards, monitoring and pricing, and exploring ways to make industries more resource efficient.” As might be expected, the successes also “displayed a clear, long-standing commitment to achieving their sustainable ‘vision”… “engineered a large degree of cooperation among relevant departments, for instance between those responsible for environmental protection and urban planning”…and “maintained commitment to their overall goals through several changes in leadership”.
The greenest cities do well across all these measures. Some examples: Tianjin has been consolidating heavy industry away from urban centers, a taking advantage of the moves to make fewer but larger new plants more energy efficient. Shenyang has now got almost all its heavy industry out of its center and is redeveloping the brownfields left behind as residential districts. Qingdao, arguably China’s greenest city, has pushed redevelopment projects to follow mass transit routes, increasing bus ridership at the expense of more heavily polluting private vehicles. Kunming is a pioneer in giving buses priority on roads. Nanning has developed three greenbelts along the Yongjiang river as part of the creation of urban woodlands and green areas to absorb carbon dioxide emissions. Shandong province officials publicly identified the region’s 1,000 biggest polluters and set aggressive waste reduction targets for each of them.
We don’t underestimate the difficulty of implementing green policies, especially in a country where they require considerable coordination between often competing bureaucracies and in which the yardsticks of success against which local officials are measured (and promoted) have been ones of economic growth. Improving the quality of urban life is an objective of the new five-year plan and a high policy priority for the leadership. Gains are being made. The overwhelming majority of the 18 indicators in the Urban Sustainability Index show improvement during the study period. Yet the relatively limited amount of success stories so far among 112 cities also tells its own story.
The hot dry weather in the south and east is causing drought to linger in both regions. Xinhua reports low reservoir levels in Guangdong where rainfall in the first ten months of this year has been 14% below normal. Water levels are also low in neighboring Jiangxi to the east after a month without rain and in southeastern Fujian the situation seems worse with reservoirs dry and more than 110,000 people left short of water. Meanwhile in Shandong, on the eastern edge of the arid North China Plain, 330,000 hectares of cropland are reported drought-stricken with no break to the dry spell in sight.
The bigger picture is that the slow desertification of the North China Plain is not being reversed quickly enough. Artificial rain-making is only ever an emergency response. The grand plan to divert the waters of three rivers to the region will take years to come to fruition, and may have unintended environmental consequences of its own, just switching part of the problem elsewhere. Demand for water has to be tackled as well as supply. That not only means switching to low-water irrigation methods on farms across China’s wheat-growing heartland but also stepping up conservation efforts in the big cities at the eastern end of the plain. It is the rapid growth of places like Beijing and Tianjin that have been a primary reason that the water table has fallen so far and so fast over the past 20 years. Producing water-conservation technology would also make useful work for idle hands in the export factories of the south.