Chinese Media Admit Government Failed on Infrastructure amid Deadly Floods

A woman carries a bag on a muddy street after severe flooding and landslide in recent days have hit the county-level Gongyi city, near Zhengzhou, in central Chinas Henan province on July 22, 2021. (Photo by JADE GAO / AFP) (Photo by JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images)
JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images

Just a few weeks after they scrambled to score cheap political points against American disaster response from the condo collapse in Miami, Chinese state media organs are grudgingly admitting the deadly floods in Henan province show their government did a poor job of infrastructure planning and construction.

China’s state-run Global Times on Wednesday tried to blame climate change for the unexpectedly heavy rains that flooded Henan, and strove to downplay the role China’s dam-building spree played in disrupting natural flood plains:

Experts reached by the Global Times said the building of dams and “worsening threat” do not have direct links, especially in this case of Henan, which was more like a sudden act of nature.

Overseas outlets are exaggerating the issue, as in fact the construction of dams and reservoirs will enhance regional disaster prevention and mitigation, rather than reduce it, Fu Zongfu, a professor from College of Water Conservancy and Hydropower Engineering at Hehai University, told the Global Times on Wednesday.

Most countries build dams, which greatly improve flood control and disaster reduction capacity, so the construction of dams should not be denied because of a rare disaster, Fu said. 

Even the Global Times’ own politically reliable “experts” came perilously close to admitting that China’s hasty construction of dams and hydropower stations laid the groundwork for the Henan floods, which have killed at least 33 people, displaced thousands, and caused almost $200 million in damage as of Thursday morning.

Chilling videos uploaded by Henan residents showed people trapped in flooded subway tunnels, struggling to keep their heads above water.

“We tried to stand on the seats as much as we could, but even then, the water reached our chests in the end. I was really scared, but the most terrifying thing was not the water, but the diminishing air in the carriage, as many seemed to have trouble breathing,” one subway survivor wrote on social media.

The survivor recalled one of her fellow passengers giving bank account information to her family over the phone so they could handle her affairs if she drowned. Her social media post was mysteriously deleted soon after it was written, along with many other eyewitness accounts of the tragedy.

The Global Times inadvertently admitted that Chinese officials have long known the Henan region was primed for more disastrous floods, and they knew many of the area dams were of substandard construction, even as they boasted of how well-constructed the newer facilities are:

After the disastrous 1998 floods, China asked local governments to gradually “return farmlands to the lakes,” in a bid to restore natural regulating ability, and stop excessive development.

Following the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure, which led to the collapse of 62 dams in Henan Province, China has strengthened the design, construction, operation and management of dams. China’s dam technology and safety are world class, experts said. 

The collapsed dam in Luoyang on Wednesday is probably old and earth-made, dating back to the 1950s to 1970s. Despite constant reinforcement and maintenance, the fatal flaw of such levees is that they are prone to failure when heavy rainfall causes the water to overflow above the peak level, [Beijing Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs director Ma Jun] said. 

The Global Times was incensed by an AFP report from Tuesday that said China’s flooding threat has “worsened over the decades, due in part to widespread construction of dams and levees that have cut connections between the river and adjacent lakes and disrupted floodplains that had helped absorb the summer surge.”

Channel News Asia (CNA) presciently warned in June that China’s “insatiable appetite for super dams” – some of them seemingly constructed as showpiece nationalist demonstrations of the Chinese Communist Party’s industrial prowess – was “wreaking environmental havoc on Asia’s major river systems, including China’s dual lifelines: the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers.”

“Giant dams damage ecosystems, drive freshwater species to extinction, cause deltas to retreat, and often emit more greenhouse gases than fossil-fuel power plants. More than 350 lakes in China have disappeared in recent decades, and, with few free-flowing rivers left, river fragmentation and depletion have become endemic,” CNA wrote.

“Moreover, dam projects have displaced an enormous number of Chinese. In 2007, just as China’s mega-dam-building drive was gaining momentum, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao revealed that, since the CCP’s rise to power, China had relocated 22.9 million people to make way for water projects – a figure larger than more than 100 countries’ entire populations. The Three Gorges Dam alone displaced more than 1.4 million people,” CNA noted.

The Chinese Communist Party also has a keen interest in building huge dam networks to control the flow of water to downriver nations like Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, gaining economic leverage over them by choking off their water supply.

Another Global Times piece on Wednesday grudgingly conceded that China’s population shifts have created potential flood situations that infrastructure planners did not adequately prepare for. Of course, since the Chinese Communist Party is supposed to be infallible, its propaganda organ claimed adequate preparations were impossible:

It is not realistic to have our cities, as well as the rural areas, build the infrastructure that can effectively cope with heavy rainfall like in Zhengzhou in the past few days. It was absolutely impossible to keep Zhengzhou from flooding on Tuesday. Such a standard in the fight against disasters means unaffordable costs, and our cities are unlikely to take that extreme safety route.

However, we should seriously consider and implement measures, including enhancing cities’ drainage so that they can provide valuable time for deployment and response for urban disaster relief in emergency situations.

We need to set a target for extreme disaster resistance: the most important thing under such a situation is to reduce or even avoid deaths. In other words, we cannot build super infrastructure for every city to get prepared for a so-called “once in a thousand years” flood. However, we must build the real ability of danger avoidance for every city, village, and town when facing meteorological disasters.

While the Global Times made comforting noises about wise CCP planners learning valuable lessons about the awesome power of nature, the UK Guardian on Thursday noted a growing wave of discontent among the Chinese public about the lack of official preparedness for the floods, inaccurate weather forecasts, a “confusing disaster alert system,” and questionable decisions to keep Henan subways operating even as floodwaters rushed in.

The Guardian quoted a horrifying report from Beijing News about a man with a missing wife who was told all subway passengers had been evacuated. He was only able to persuade subway staff this was not the case by starting a live video call with his wife, who was trapped in a train with other passengers with flood water literally up to her neck.

“A widely shared WeChat article noted early contradictory statements from local state media, including that no passengers were in danger, while at the same time footage – later blocked from China’s internet – was being shared of dead bodies at Shakoulu station, including by the national state media outlet, Xinhua,” the Guardian wrote.

During last year’s flood season, the Chinese government destroyed many smaller dams to protect the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze and preserve the vital industrial assets beneath it. This left millions of rural residents homeless and angry at the government for sacrificing their towns to preserve more important real estate.

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