by Probe International

Did dams ramp up deluge in Henan?

Some say the area’s aging dams are a threat to the region, compounded by the Chinese Communist Party’s centralized response system. Probe International looks at why.

Beginning on Saturday, July 17, the city of Zhengzhou in China’s central Henan province, was overcome in one freakish strike by a year’s worth of rain – over 25 inches in a matter of days, with a third of that amount falling between 4pm and 5pm on Tuesday, July 20. 
 
The historic rainfall that turned busy streets into raging rivers and carried cars in a torrent that overflowed subway lines and trapped commuters on platforms and inside train carriages in a rising tide of panic, wasn’t the only menace forcing Zhengzhou to the brink of disaster.
 
In the wake of unprecedented, so-called “black swan floods,” responsible for more than US$10-billion in damage and a death toll of 300 and counting, various reports have flagged the region’s network of aging dams, and associated structural issues that could not contain the strain of the July deluge, as a contributing factor.
 
Some say the area’s dam menace is compounded by the Chinese Communist Party’s centralized response system. A totalitarian control that prevents local governments from swift action during emergencies and rewards officials for launching relief efforts – but not efforts aimed at prevention. A man-made recipe for disaster, in other words.
 
In the wake of the floods, a report by South China Morning Post highlighted the vulnerability of China’s dam reservoirs, noting that, “according to officials, about 13,000 or just over 13 per cent, of the country’s 98,000 reservoirs need safety checks and repairs.”
 
Bao Weimin, a hydrology specialist from Hohai University in Nanjing, told SCMP that the “government is pouring money at the problem because more than 80 per cent of the reservoirs are over four decades old.” 
 
A Xinhua news agency report from November 2020, cited by SCMP, says the government planned to invest 100 billion yuan (US$15.2 billion) to reinforce dilapidated reservoirs over the next five years.
 
In the case of Zhengzhou, the Changzhuang reservoir, located 2 kilometers away, threatened to overflow during the July rains under pressure from structural damage and a fast-rising water level. Without warning to the city’s downstream population, reservoir floodwaters were discharged for 14 hours, beginning at 10:30 a.m. on July 20, according to a state news agency. A discharge event that was followed a few hours later by the sudden water surge observed in the city’s downtown area that blindsided commuters and launched Zhengzhou into extreme danger. The official notice of the discharge, however, was not issued until the early hours of July 21 and made no mention of the time it had begun.
 
Live video netizens posted to the Internet showed that within half an hour, water had engulfed an entire road in the city’s center. A treacherous spike in volume many felt was unrelated to the rainfall.
 
Chinese-born human rights activist and YouTube television host, Jennifer Zeng, posted to her blog on July 23 the following:
 
Initially the CCP said this was a heavy rainstorm that only happens every 40 years. Then the Zhengzhou Weather Bureau said this rainfall is once in every one thousand years. Then the Henan Water Resources Department says this is a rainstorm that happens every 5000 years.
 
Many netizens became so angry when they read this that they actually laughed: Every 5000 years? That is longer than China’s civilized history. Are you talking about the prehistoric great flood that destroyed the world? Do we need to build Noah’s Ark to save ourselves?
 
Zeng, like others, notes a water peak on July 20 from 4 pm to 5 pm, when the city recorded 201 mm (7.92 inches) of rainfall in one hour.
 
A Zhengzhou-based current affairs commentator surnamed Tang, speaking to Radio Free Asia, said the authorities must have had some idea of what was coming.
 
“We had all that heavy rain, but where was the government’s [flood defense] plan?” said Tang, who added that officials should have suspended public transportation services but were “likely afraid of getting demerits and trying to cover up the extent of the disaster.”
 

Heng He, a U.S.-based political analyst and longtime critic of China’s Communist regime, told RFA that local authorities are not rewarded by the CCP for their efforts to prevent disaster.

“No matter how effectively you prevented something, this won’t be marked [as an achievement on your record],” Heng said. “That’s why officials prefer to launch disaster relief operations, rather than preventing disasters.”

Heng compared the government response to the Zhengzhou disaster to that of the 1976 earthquake that destroyed the city of Tangshan in northern China. The two events, he said, were similar in their lack of “standard emergency protocols” at the local government level. 

Under Xi Jinping in 2018, the CCP’s Central Military Commission resumed command of the People’s Armed Police, in order to prevent local detachments from deploying PAP units to oppose Beijing. The move, designed to avoid concentrating too much decision-making power in the hands of local governments, also means rescue operations “can’t be mobilized in time to save people if officials can’t act independently at a local level,” said Heng

“Emergency protocols are there to tell you what to do and what not to do,” said Heng. “If those aren’t available, all they can do in China’s totalitarian system is wait [for orders].”

The build-up and release of upstream reservoir waters had unleashed a “man-made disaster” on the city of Zhengzhou, said Heng.

Renowned hydrology expert, Wang Weiluo, told Toronto-based China monitor Probe International that piping issues at the Changzhuang reservoir had worsened from seepage to actual holes, or rather cavities, and that this had resulted in the need for the emergency flood relief on July 20. The cavities may have formed during the concrete casting process, said Wang. This is not unique to the reservoir at Changzhuang.

According to Wang, cavities – or “dog holes” – were identified during the casting process at the Gezhouba dam and Three Gorges dam, both located on the Yangtze River. Dog holes, in fact, caused late premier Zhou Enlai to temporarily halt the Gezhouba project in the early 1970s. The late Zhang Guangdou, a hydraulic engineering specialist and Three gorges dam-building veteran, admitted there were cavities in the concrete casting process at the Three Gorges behemoth, in addition to other problems concerning quality.

Meanwhile, on the same day as the Changzhuang reservoir event, soldiers were dispatched to blast and divert floodwaters at the Yihetan dam in Luoyang, west of Zhengzhou, after the punishing rains had caused a 20-meter breach amid fears of dam collapse.

Elizabeth Chen, China Brief editor for the Washington-based think tank Jamestown Foundation, writes:

The flood damages were not restricted to Henan Province. On July 1, severe rainfall overflowed first the Yongan dam and then the downstream Xinfa dam in Morin Dawa Daur, Inner Mongolia, causing more than 16,000 people to be evacuated. The dams had last been reinforced in 2016. On July 21, state media reported that the reservoirs at Changzhuang and Guojiazui experienced dangerously high conditions but did not collapse. Notably, Guojiazui sits on the central route of China’s massive South-to-North Water Transfer project; while the Ministry of Water Resources reported that the main canal was safe, it added that it had sent warnings to Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province, anticipating additional heavy rainfall to come across northeastern, central, southern and southwestern China. An embankment along the Weihe river in the Haihe river system collapsed on July 22 and was not repaired until July 26. As of July 28, provincial authorities reported that 4 large reservoirs and 27 medium-sized reservoirs had overflowed. In order to protect downstream areas, Henan Province opened 7 out of 9 flood storage and detention areas, using a strategy that one expert described as “sacrificing local interests [to] preserve the overall situation.”

Chen includes mention of a commentary by CCP mouthpiece Global Times that argues: “we cannot build super infrastructure for every city to get prepared for a so-called ‘once in a thousand years’ flood,” and that cities should instead focus on improving their preventative response and disaster relief efforts. Chen also cites the Ministry of Water Resources and its admission that safety assessments had not been completed on nearly a third of China’s 98,000 flood management reservoirs due to a lack of funding.

The Henan floods also raise another point of interest: how did the July rainfall manage to submerge one of China’s “sponge city” models for flood management?

Zhengzhou, a city of more than 12 million, which sits in a low-lying and flood-prone north China plain on the south banks of the Yellow River (another unfortunate factor in the July rain event), became a pilot for a growing approach to urban floodwater management as early as 2016. According to Chinese media, 53.48 billion yuan was to have been invested by 2020 to develop Zhengzhou into a “sponge city” with a drainage network of 5,162 kilometers to address 125 of the city’s flood risk areas, as well as strengthen and expand the existing drainage system in place.

Now citizens are asking, where did that money go?

Chinese officials and experts say the sponge project is designed to handle only moderate and light rain rather than the once-in-a-100-year [or 60-year or 1000-year or 5000-year] deluge that engulfed Zhengzhou.

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