Beijing Water

Storm of conscience

(July 27, 2012) The force of a powerful storm that struck Beijing over the weekend has exposed massive flaws in the capital city’s antiquated plumbing infrastructure. Chinese authorities in Beijing now face a firestorm of criticism from citizens demanding to know why their drainage system—famously defined as a city’s conscience by French writer Victor Hugowas neglected for so long. The weekend flooding has also brought into question the official death toll, which many feel the government is downplaying to offset blame for the city’s poor emergency response to a disaster that could have been more manageable.

Lisa Peryman for Probe International

Thought to be the worst storm in 60 years, a deadly deluge that overwhelmed China’s capital on Saturday claimed a body count currently estimated at 77, drowned thousands of farm animals, turned city streets into lakes, reduced traffic to chaos, collapsed buildings, forced massive evacuations and cost the economy an estimated 10 billion yuan in losses ($US1.6 billion).

Although public attention has been concentrated on the recovery effort, the disaster has directed public anger towards Beijing officials for the state of the capital’s drainage system, overwhelmed in the deluge, and their handling of the aftermath, in particular downplaying the scope of its severity.

After years of frenzied urban development, accelerated by the Beijing Olympics in 2008, many are now staggered to learn that the city’s vast network of aging infrastructure was neglected by authorities in the race to modernize and pursue vanity projects.

Beijing’s current drainage network dates back to the 1950s and is based on a Soviet design that relies on pipelines to manage excess water flow. The drainage systems of downtown Beijing were largely built to withstand rainfall of 36 to 45 millimeters an hour. Official news agencies are citing one investigation that revealed half of Beijing’s drainage networks were clogged with sediment as thick as 10 to 50 percent of the pipes’ diameter. State news agency Xinhua said 460mm (18.1 in) of rain fell in Beijing’s rural Fangshan district, the worst-hit area located on Beijing’s mountainous outskirts, with the capital as a whole averaging 170mm.

Given their state, Beijing’s drainage system was only able to absorb one-third of the rain that bombarded the capital over the weekend. By contrast, the centuries-old drainage sections that still surround Beijing’s Forbidden City, once home to China’s power elite, managed to keep the heart of China’s capital bone dry. 

Reports estimate more than nine million people in China took to the Internet to express their views over the handling of the storm. Many chose to vent their anger in posts that, in some cases, have been removed, others triumphed over censorship thanks to sheer number. Examples of the temperature of opinion read:

“In addition to making the city beautiful, [officials] should also have built a working drainage system. They only know how to turn on the tap of positive propaganda, not realizing that public opinion is the most important drainage system,” wrote one blogger in a post since deleted.

In a post reflecting the growing sense that the true cost of the storm is being kept under wraps, Li Chengpeng, a writer from Sichuan Province, says:

“We need to commemorate the people who have died in tragic events. But there are so many of them now, and they go uninvestigated, unaccounted for. Nothing happens after these incidents, and the people die and no figures are given to the public? No acknowledgment? No explanation? We know we cannot expect the government to do this work, so we have to do it. Civil society needs to do it. Now people are using the Internet … to do the job the government does not want to do.”

On-the-ground observers think the number of dead could be much higher, based on the extent of damage and the difficulty of rescue work, including problems identifying the missing. Under China’s household registration—or hukou—system, millions of Beijing residents are not legally registered and therefore do not officially exist in the city, making accurate counts of fatalities and casualties in areas affected by the floodwaters problematic.

Meanwhile, the paving over of Beijing and some of the city’s 200 rivers in recent years compounded the impact of the torrential rain. Xinhua News quotes experts as saying the floods are largely the result of urbanization, and attributes vast networks of roads and the elimination of greenbelts to a decrease in the ability of some cities, such as Beijing, to absorb heavy rains.

Even China’s state mouthpiece, the Global Times, was urged to write: “If so much chaos can be triggered in Beijing, the capital of the nation, problems in urban infrastructure of many other places can only be worse,” said a commentary in Monday’s edition. “In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies.”

China Daily quotes Pan Anjun, deputy director of the water authority, as saying the storms had revealed areas of concern.

“The chaos of transportation due to the summer rainstorms has exposed our weakness in municipal infrastructure,” Pan said.

In response to the disaster, the city’s underpasses will be thoroughly inspected and upgrading plans made for every one of them to improve drainage, said Pan. He did not reveal a timeline for the upgrade.

Mr. Pan, in announcing that the Beijing death toll had risen from 37 to 77, explained that the vast majority of dead had drowned, with five electrocuted and one struck by lightning. He said a further sharp increase in the death toll “is not likely” because search efforts were drawing to an end. Although, he did add, “we will not give up searching just yet.”

For photographic coverage, see One flood, Two tales.

Further reading

Beijing tries safety nets for manholes

Buried under water
The death of a Beijing man trapped in his car during the floods, drives home the perils of Beijing’s outdated Soviet-era drainage system and highlights the flaws of the city’s emergency response protocols.

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