Jul 24 2012

The Flooding Tragedy in Beijing

In 1997 and 1998, I had the privilege of spending a few days of my summer as well as a Thanksgiving in Beijing, China. I got to visit the Great Wall, eat some fantastic dim sum and local fare, visit the silk market, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace, and experience some extreme heat and extreme cold. I loved it and wished I had more time there. I was struck by how huge and wide the city felt. Most of the time I had no clue what part of the city I was in as I traveled mostly by taxi with friends! I would go back in a heartbeat.

Map picture

So it was with sadness that I saw the news yesterday morning about the tragic flooding over the weekend. I saw reports initially reporting 10 deaths, then close to 40, and now the death toll is nearly 100 with close to 50 still missing and 6 million displaced or affected. Rain storms delivered over 460mm (18 in) in less than a day in the Fangshan District alone with an average of 170mm over the rest of the affected areas. This may not be as big of a storm that hit Japan over a week ago but this system hit essentially a large unprepared even more densely populated urban area. Both storms dumped a ton of rain and this event in Beijing was the worst in over 60 years.

Beijing authorities have reportedly ordered Chinese media to stick to positive news about record weekend floods, after the death of at least 37 people sparked fierce criticism of the government.

Censors also deleted micro blog posts criticizing the official response to the disaster in China’s rapidly modernizing capital, which came at a time of heightened political sensitivity ahead of a 10-yearly handover of power. (AP)

Of course, along with mourning the loss and devastation, what happens next? The blaming and the censoring! The blaming is expected as people asked how this could have happened. The censoring is a Chinese government tradition dating back to dawn of the Communist party and came right on schedule earlier today as the news about the flooding became worse and worse. The censoring even resorting to deleting micro blog posts focusing on a call for donations!

“I saw an empty car sweep by – then five [more] with people inside,” said He Ping in Louzishui. “You could hear people shouting out but we couldn’t do anything because the current was so fast.” The first one, he said, contained a young woman. “She was looking up, saying ‘Help!’ But in a few seconds she was swept past.” (Mail & Guardian)

Some of the stories are pretty harrowing from buildings collapsing to people in cars floating away. It seems like it wasn’t simply an infrastructure problem surrounding the flood protection but also a lack of awareness of the imminent and ongoing flash flood.

On top of the inundation deaths, when you see the videos and pictures, remember that although Beijing has seen a lot of modernization, the sewage and storm water systems are still largely inadequate. When I was In China, it’s not like in the U.S. or other places where places of water are recreational places. Bodies of water, be it a river or ditch or lake, were always extremely dirty, unsanitary, smelly, and avoided (by us at least). Now, granted, this was 14 years ago, but I get the impression that this hasn’t changed a ton. The good thing is that these floods should be receding relatively quickly.

In villages, residents said they had escaped to higher ground or clambered onto rooftops as the waters rose. In the worst hit areas, the downpour and flash floods flattened crops, uprooted trees, toppled walls, tore up iron fences and crumbled roads. In one spot, railway tracks floated over empty space, their sleepers and beds washed away.

Other areas seemed entirely unscathed by the waters that had immersed them. Some residents were even taking advantage of the floods: on what had been a roadside verge, men in sodden trousers fished with nets, sharpened sticks and plastic beer crates for the foot-long fish that had escaped nearby farms.

Alerted to danger
Despite their cheer, there was widespread anger. Some said the government should have alerted residents to the danger earlier while others asked whether a city that has invested billions in flashy additions to its infrastructure had neglected more basic concerns.

While some suggested any drainage system would have struggled to cope with such heavy rain, even articles in state media acknowledged that Beijing’s sewers were in dire need of an overhaul. “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 Global Times newspaper. “In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies.” (Mail & Guardian)

China is slowly shifting culturally in terms of it’s level of freedom but one thing that stood out while I was there was the level of residual anger always beneath the surface just waiting to be expressed. These are a people that have been oppressed by their government for over 50 years. You’d seen arguments or fights on the streets between street vendors, and lots of road rage. I was in China when the U.S. mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. My Chinese friends could hardly talk to me and students were demonstrating and near rioting in the streets, even chasing and beating white, American looking foreign students in various cities (not mine though). Now imagine this anger being expressed in relation to the loss and destruction described above and you start to understand another reason for the government censorship.

Watch the rescue below from a collapsed bridge and be thinking about and praying for the citizens of Beijing.

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