Questions Remain After China Floods

By Alexa Olesen 24 July 2012

BEIJING—Recent heavy rains across much of China have left nearly 100 people dead, state media said Tuesday. More than a third of the fatalities were in the flood-ravaged capital, where some residents questioned whether the city’s rapid push for modernization came at the expense of basic infrastructure such as drainage networks.

Authorities in Beijing were still trying to pump water from sections of flooded highway after Saturday night’s torrential downpour, the city’s heaviest rain in six decades.

The city government said 37 people died: 25 drowned, six were killed when houses collapsed, one was hit by lightning and five were electrocuted by fallen power lines.

Beijing residents shared photos online of submerged cars stranded on flooded streets, city buses with water up to commuters’ knees and cascades of water rushing down the steps of overpasses.

Nearly 57,000 people were evacuated from their homes and damage from the storm reached at least 10 billion yuan (US $1.6 billion), according to a report by the Beijing Daily newspaper on the Beijing government website.

Heavy rain also proved deadly elsewhere in the country. The official Xinhua News Agency reported late Monday that 95 people had died and 45 were still missing across 17 Chinese provinces and municipalities, including Beijing. It cited the Civil Affairs Bureau.

Although Beijing’s worst-hit areas were in rural hilly outskirts of the city, the scale of the disaster was a major embarrassment for China’s showcase capital, where such things are not supposed to happen.

The city has seen tens of billions of dollars poured into its modernization, including iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics, the world’s second-largest airport, new subway lines and dazzling skyscrapers. But the floods raised questions about whether basics like drainage were neglected.

“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 state-run Global Times newspaper. “In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies.”

The criticism mirrors some of that seen after a high-speed train crash that killed 40 people in Wenzhou in southeastern China a year ago Monday. That turned into a public-relations nightmare for the government and led many to question the quality of infrastructure in the country and the government’s transparency on disasters.

Some pointed out that Saturday’s deluge was historic in nature, with the Global Times noting it was the heaviest rainstorm in the capital in 61 years. The worst-hit area of the city received 460 millimeters (18.4 inches) of rain on Saturday.

“In just one day, it rained as much as it normally rains in six months in Beijing,” said Zhang Junfeng, a senior engineer from the Ministry of Transport who runs weekend tours of Beijing reservoirs and gives lectures on water conservancy. “No drainage system can withstand rains this big.”

In Qinglonghu, a village about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from downtown Beijing where many migrant workers from surrounding provinces have settled, at least two dozen brick homes were flooded. Local residents said Monday they were terrified to go back into their homes for fear they would collapse. They said they were sleeping outside, had no drinking water or food and had yet to get any assistance from local officials.

At least three people from the village were believed killed, residents said, including a man crushed by a falling power line and a woman and her 8-month-old baby who were washed away.

“No one wants something like this to happen,” said Cao Fuxiang, the woman’s cousin. “Life is so difficult. We left our town to make some money and now she has disappeared.”

Piles of dirt from a large construction site in Qinglonghu appeared to have formed a dam that kept the downpour from draining into a river, worsening the rain’s damage.
Associated Press writer Isolda Morillo and researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report.