As China floods, lack of public debate holds back preparation for future extreme weather events

Source quoted from: South China Morning Post

Calling the deadly deluge a ‘once in 1,000 or 5,000 years’ event has aroused suspicions they are trying to minimise their responsibility

In fact, public discussions are crucial for ordinary people and officials alike to target vulnerabilities in urban infrastructure and the environment

Rescuers pump rainwater out of a road in flood-hit Weihui City in Henan province. Photo: Xinhua

Media  – The worst may be over for the central Chinese province of Henan – where epic rainfall and flooding swamped cities including its capital, Zhengzhou, causing 99 deaths and affecting close to 14 million people – but the finger – pointing has just started.

Local officials have pinned the devastating destruction solely on Mother Nature, but there are questions about whether they paid sufficient attention to early warnings and whether rigid bureaucracy delayed evacuations, particularly in the case of a subway train that was trapped for hours as the tunnel it was in slowly filled with water, killing at least 14 people.

By all accounts, the devastating rainfall on July 20 that flooded subways and paralysed transport as well as telecommunications in Zhengzhou, home to 12 million people, was the heaviest there in decades.

According to official reports, the maximum rainfall reached 201.9mm per hour that day, breaking the previous record of 198.5mm in 1975. In a 24-hour period from 8pm the previous day, 552.5mm of rain fell on Zhengzhou. By comparison, in the flooding that hit Germany earlier this month, the worst in post-war history, the maximum rainfall was recorded at 154mm over a 24-hour period.

In the three days from July 17-20, Zhengzhou recorded nearly a year’s worth of rainfall.

The city’s meteorologists promptly labelled the deluge a “once in 1,000 years” event – and, not to be outdone, the provincial department of water resources described it as something that would only happen “once in 5,000 years”.

While those official designations made eye-catching headlines around the world and drew people’s attention, they also caused controversy and beggared belief – particularly the latter.

It is true that scientists are able to build models based on historical data to estimate the probability of a given amount of rainfall, and assign rainfall amounts to the corresponding probabilities – for example, 0.1 per cent would mean it was a once in 1,000 years event.

But as scientists readily admit, those statistical estimates are far from perfect, heavily influenced by various assumptions they make about natural phenomena. Generally speaking, scientists are more confident of estimating rainfall events for a 100-year time frame than they are for 1,000 years, given the lack of historical data.

This has made the Henan officials’ keenness to put a spectacular label on the disaster look suspect, and aroused suspicions that they tried to play up the nature angle to minimise their own responsibilities.

Indeed, some netizens have dug up a local media report from 2005 saying that Nanzhao county, which is some 220km from Zhengzhou, reported flooding described as “once in 1,000 years” that killed five people and toppled 907 houses in July that year.

It is interesting to note that Chen Tao, chief forecaster at the National Meteorological Centre, has dismissed Henan’s descriptions of the latest flooding as “mathematical concepts”, adding that China only kept complete and accurate rainfall records from 1950.

Meanwhile, more reports have shown that Zhengzhou officials apparently failed to heed the repeated early warnings by their own meteorologists to order immediate evacuations.

According to these reports, from 10pm on July 19 to 4pm on July 20, the Zhengzhou Meteorological Bureau issued at least five red notices – the highest-level storm warning – with the advisory that assemblies, classes and work should be stopped and people should seek shelter.

But residents have said they did not receive any mandatory evacuation orders, and the authorities did not stop subway train operations until 6pm. By that time, 500 passengers had already been trapped for 40 minutes in a subway train as water rose in the surrounding tunnel. According to the survivors’ accounts, they were stuck in the train for nearly three hours before they were rescued.

In addition, the city officials also apparently failed to communicate in a timely manner that a nearby reservoir had already started to discharge water, which some residents suspect contributed to the severe flooding.

It remains unclear why the Zhengzhou officials were reluctant to order immediate evacuations, and they have remained silent on the issue even though official regulations clearly mandate such evacuations under extreme weather.

Some analysts have speculated that this reluctance may have something to do with the rigid bureaucratic approval procedure, which takes longer than necessary. Others believe the officials harboured thoughts that they could avoid the worst.

This line of speculation is somewhat corroborated by subsequent statements from the central government and other regional leaders.

On January 26, Premier Li Keqiang told a meeting on flood prevention that local officials should take resolute measures to stop work as well as classes and close down subway stations in emergencies, even though those measures might seem unreasonable in the moment.

And while Chinese officials may start to acknowledge that climate change has contributed to extreme weather events such as the disaster in Henan, they have done little to encourage a public debate on

global warming and its devastating impact, unlike the intense discussions in developed countries including Germany and the United States, which have been hit by deadly floods and fires.

Instead, the authorities have tried to keep a tight lid on information by preventing local residents from speaking to overseas reporters, and highlighting the heroism of Communist Party members in the rescue and recovery efforts.

But allowing public discussions is crucial to better prepare ordinary people and officials alike to target vulnerabilities in urban infrastructure and the environment, as well as coping with increasing incidents of extreme weather caused by climate change – which are a global phenomenon.

Wang Xiangwei is a former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper.

Wang Xiangwei was the Post’s editor-in-chief from 2012-2015. He started his 20-year career at the China Daily, before moving to the UK, where he worked at a number of news organisations, including the BBC Chinese Service. He moved to Hong Kong in 1993 and worked at the Eastern Express before joining the Post in 1996 as China business reporter. He became China editor in 2000 and deputy editor in 2007, a position he held for four years prior to being promoted to Editor-in-Chief. He has a master’s degree in journalism, and a bachelor’s degree in English.

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