(June 4, 2008) CHINA is no stranger to natural disasters, but it has come a long way in how it deals with them. When a dam collapsed during a typhoon three decades ago, killing more than 80,000 people, it was several years before the outside world knew anything about it. Beijing’s reaction to last month’s earthquake in Sichuan, which is known to have killed nearly 70,000, has been refreshingly different. Foreign aid agencies have been welcomed and journalists given full access. This has garnered international sympathy for the victims and praise for the speed with which the government acted.
But this openness carries risks too. Audiences around the world have witnessed the anger of parents who lost their only child when poorly constructed schools collapsed on them. It has also exposed China’s dam-building strategy, which has long been criticised for its disruptive effect on the environment and people’s lives.
China has more dams than any other country, and many of them are in Sichuan, an earthquake-prone, mountainous region. The majority of them produce hydroelectricity. The region is well-placed to supply power to large industrial cities down the Yangtze valley, and when the dams were built this must have appeared a logical strategy. Now it looks foolhardy. Hundreds of Sichuan’s dams have been damaged by the earthquake and could collapse during the coming monsoon season. They are claimed to have been built to withstand any seismic disturbance, but even the best-built dams are potentially lethal in an earthquake.