Dams and Landslides

Chinese officials knew land use policies could create deadly landslide

(August 12, 2010) Brady Yauch writes that recent evidence shows poor policy decisions may be to blame for a deadly landslide in China’s northwestern Gansu province.

Critics said last weekend’s deadly landslide in China’s northwestern Gansu province was the result of poor policies, lax regulation and dangerous infrastructure projects. Now, reports show that government officials were aware of these problems all along.  According to a report from Reuters, government officials have been concerned for years that deforestation and quick-fire construction of dams were making the region more prone to landslides and flooding.

Indeed, the situation was so bad that government reports called for the restoration of  “a battered line of environmental defences in a brittle landscape” that they deemed to be a “high-occurence disaster zone for landslides.”

According to the Reuters report, government documents issued prior to the disaster warned that the area’s 576-kilometre-long (358 mile) Bailong River and surrounding slopes were at risk from over-development because forests have been chopped down and hydro dams built without considering how these activities were destabilizing the area’s geology.

One government report in 2009 warned: “Water volumes have fallen drastically, soil erosion is accelerating, and the trend of frequent land- and mudslides and other geological hazards has not been contained. The repair of the Bailong River basin must not brook delay.”

The report also said the blistering pace of deforestation since the 1950s had caused “grave destruction to the natural environment, creating serious erosion, worsening geological hazards, frequent natural disasters, a fall in water absorption capacity and shrinking flows.”

Zhang Qirong, an official with the Bailong River forestry authority, told Reuters that dams along the Bailong River were a major factor in creating landslides and clogging the river—especially “after loosening caused by the 2008 earthquake.”

He says there are 13 dams—three of them large-scale dams—on the stretch of the Bailong River coursing through Zhouqu.

“Some bigger power stations do (ecological) repairs according to the regulations, but many of them are small power stations under individual investors…They’re very lax,” he said.

Another government report warned that in Diebu County, upstream from Zhouqu, the area’s “natural brittleness,” mixed with deforestation and dams, has created 228 potential hazard spots that “directly endanger a population of 97,000 people.”

“The Gannan section of the Bailong River has become one of the nation’s high-occurrence disaster zones for land- and mudslides,” the report added.

Other critics, such as Probe International, have warned that China’s quick, yet poorly regulated, pace of development will likely result in an increase in natural disasters. In an exclusive report for Probe International, geologist Fan Xiao warned that China’s risk from geological disasters was on the rise across the country as a result of the construction frenzy—pointing to a recent train derailment in Jiangxi Province, and a mud-rock flow at the Changheba dam and a mountain collapse at the construction site of the Pubugou dam.

From the Christian Science Monitor: “Official records show that government-run lumber companies cut 313,000 acres of forest from the slopes of Zhouqu county between 1952 and 1990, denuding the geologically vulnerable mountainsides and subjecting them to soil erosion.”

“Thirteen years ago two Chinese scientists published a paper warning that following ‘the destruction of the eco-system’ in the district, ‘a rainstorm will carry debris down the gully, destroying farmland, houses, roads, bridges, water facilities, and power systems and causing death and injury.” Read more…

Brady Yauch, Probe International

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