Chinese Floods: A Natural or a Man-Made Disaster?

August 29, 1998
By Michael Glantz

Fragilecologies By Michael GlantzAbout 20 years ago I wrote an editorial for a journal called "Climatic Change". The title of the editorial was "Render unto weather...". The notion behind the paper was that societies (especially governments) prefer to blame nature for the adverse impacts, certain kinds of disasters, especially those that are considered to have been climate-related. They include, but are not limited to, droughts, floods, fires, famines.

The argument went like this: If we look closely at the impacts of climate (usually climate extremes) on society, we find that there is a part of the adverse consequences that can be blamed on climate (e.g., nature) and a part that can likely be blamed on society. The examples I cited 20 years ago were (a) the drought and famine in the West African Sahel in the early 1970s and (b) the economic development of the city of Boulder (Colorado) in a flood plain with a known flood frequency and potential.

The Sahelian drought (defined as a lack of rainfall) could not be stopped by human activities, but the impacts of that naturally occurring drought could be worsened by poor land-use practices undertaken in the wrong ecosetting. As for Boulder, political decisions were made to develop a town at the mouth of a flood-prone canyon. However, when that flood does occur, nature will surely take the blame.

Not surprisingly, governments around the globe have shown no reluctance to look for, identify and blame Mother Nature for certain severe climate-related disasters. Fish populations collapse, according to governments, because of natural fluctuations in the environment and not because of overfishing (for example, the California sardine fishery immortalized by John Steinbeck's Cannery Row or the Peruvian anchovy fishery collapse in the 1970s). Fires occur in the tropical areas during drought because of lightning strikes and because companies pay people to torch them (rainforests) on purpose as a cheap land-clearing measure. Unfortunately, the examples of laying blame are the almost endless.

More recently, societies around the globe have found a new "thing" to blame their problems on: El Niño. El Niño has been blamed for just about everything in the past year that was not wanted, was unexpected, or was associated (rightly or wrongly) with disastrous consequences for the environment or society. Kenya, for example, blamed the destruction of its transportation infrastructure on the heavy rains that occurred during 1997-98 El Niño. However, many observers now charge that the destruction of that infrastructure was due for the most part to government neglect of needed repairs for more than a decade and a half. In other words, the El Niño-related torrential rains only served to destroy something that was already collapsing.

Recently, the devastating heavy rains and floods in central and northeast China have received considerable attention in the media. Their impacts have been devastating in both human and environmental terms. Floods have adversely affected 29 provinces and cities and financial losses are estimated in billions of dollars. They were devastating enough to cause the president of China, Jiang Zemin, to postpone a trip to Russia and Japan.

Major Flood Area

The Yangtze River in central China, the third-longest river in the world, and the Songhua and other rivers in the northeast have reached their highest levels in decades, some say in the century. Inhabitants in central China had to endure not one but seven different flood crests throughout a period of a couple of months. The rains in the upper reaches of the tributaries of these rivers seemed never to stop, creating a seemingly incessant problem for human settlements downstream. As only can be done in China, the government in one instance mobilized about 400,000 soldiers to build up the embankment along Harbin's Sonhua River to protect that city and China's largest oil field, at Daqing.

News reports have suggested that more than 250 million — yes, 250 million — people have been affected by these floods! Both cities and rural areas have been flooded, sending millions of refugees to their relatives in other parts of the country or to shelters of some sort. Nothing in the wake of the flooding has been spared: as of now the official estimate is that more than 3000 people have died, millions of houses destroyed and infrastructure including power lines, transportation routes and water supplies have been trashed. There is a considerable threat of widespread water-borne disease outbreaks (such as dysentery, hepatitis) and parasites such as snail fever in central and northeastern China, given the shortages of medicines in the flood regions. The health problems resulting from the Great China Flood of 1998 will likely last until the end of the year, if not beyond.

These worst floods in China in more than 40 years have been blamed on El Niño by the Chinese government. However, El Niño is dying, as very cold waters begin to appear in the sub-surface and at the surface of the central tropical Pacific Ocean near the equator. Nevertheless, Chinese officials singled out El Niño as the culprit.

In mid-August 1998, the Chinese government took a bold step forward. It changed its story of blaming El Niño. It now believes that the damaging floods were caused in large measure by deforestation in the Yangtze River's watershed. This is a bold admission...a government taking blame (and responsibility) for human activities, activities most likely allowed, if not encouraged, by decades of government policy or foreign neglect.

Heavy summer rains eroded deforested slopes, absent of trees that would help to retain moisture in the soil. Over decades, rivers have collected the silt from the erosion. The government has even taken the important step of banning logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtze (e.g., in western Sichuan).

China deserves high marks by the environmental community for taking such a bold and irreversible step...and admission of misuse of the environment. With such an admission is likely to come a policy to reserve the environmental damage that has been done.

At a recent meeting on tornadoes, Don Wermly (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration-NOAA) made the following comment, "We're never going to be able to change weather, but natural hazards do not have to become natural disasters."

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