Chinese cities aren't ready for climate disasters

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) – Climate change is making China’s annual summer floods worse, and cities housing millions of people are not prepared to handle the damage.

Record-breaking rainfall in the central province of Henan killed more than 300 people last month, while downpours continue to swamp cities in several other regions. Two people died last week in Beijing after they were trapped in a car that was submerged under a bridge. 

The tragedies are making it clear to policy makers and citizens that  Chinese cities, even the capital, are far from ready for the extreme weather events wrought by global warming. 

It is not just the threat of floods. Greenpeace research has shown that China’s key metropolises are at risk of longer and hotter summers in the coming decades. 

Year after year, officials have vowed to better prepare the country to deal with such disasters. 

So far that response, at least when it comes to heavy rains, has focused on building infrastructure such as dams, dikes and subsurface drainage systems. Those investments have played an important role in bringing the death toll down from historical records, but have proved woefully inadequate in the face of increasingly dangerous weather. 

“These projects are meant to help the country face general floods, not extreme events like the one that hit Henan this year,” said Liu Junyan, a climate campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “Most infrastructure was made to protect cities from floods that are the worst in 10 or 20 years, but it’s unrealistic to upgrade all infrastructure to be able to face a flood that’s the worst in hundreds of years.” 

In the wake of Henan’s floods, Chinese social media users began mocking the country’s flagship “sponge cities” project that was launched in 2015. The initiative seeks to use gardens, scenic wetland parks, permeable pavements, and underground storage tanks to soak up heavy precipitation and release it slowly into the river and reservoirs. 

The label “sponge city” label has at times been used by provincial officials and companies to gain political support and government money in order to win approval for new construction work, Bloomberg Green reported last year. 

The projects were sometimes built on forests and wetlands that would otherwise have helped to absorb floodwater. Once new developments are built, there can be little incentive to invest in their upkeep. 

China is not alone. Cities all over the world are grappling with how to adapt to the changing climate as they battle everything from drought in California to heatwaves in France and Spain. 

A report by the non-profit CDP that analyzed more than 800 cities showed 43 per cent of them do not have a plan to deal with more extreme weather. 

Only 59 per cent of the cities have conducted a risk and vulnerability assessment, one of the first steps to developing a climate-adaptation strategy, leaving more than 400 million people at risk. 

Chinese cities not only need to improve their “hardware” by building better infrastructure to protect people from extreme weather, they also need to develop “soft skills” such as alert systems and weather monitoring, said Mr Ma Jun, founder of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. 

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Local governments need to be able to send information quickly to people who need it during an emergency, he said.   

Henan, like most of the provinces in China, does not have an effective emergency-response system. In the capital Zhengzhou, 14 people drowned after the subway flooded and trapped them in carriages for more than three hours. 

The government is now facing questions over why the subway had not stopped operating earlier or whether a better evacuation protocol could have saved lives. 

The city’s weather department said it sent six red alerts for intense rainstorms that day, but the warnings did not get much attention from the public or other government departments. 

China has not done enough to prepare its cities for more extreme weather, says Liu from Greenpeace.  The only government-led climate adaptation project was launched four years ago. It covered 28 cities, even though China has over 100 cities with populations above one million. 

“By the end of 2020, the cities will have a significant improvement in their adaptability and people living in the cities will have a greater awareness of climate change,” the country’s top economic planner and housing ministry said in a document launching the programme in 2017. There have not been any updates since.  

While floods cause death and destruction every year, the devastating scenes from this year’s rains in Henan have spurred unprecedented discussion in state media and on the internet about what China needs to do to adapt. 

Experts have advocated for educating the public about the risks of the most common hazards, optimising emergency protocols and boosting financial and insurance programmes. 

Public discussion has not been this focused on the annual floods since July 2012, when 79 people were killed in Beijing as the city was hit by the heaviest rain in decades. 

The death of a man who was trapped in his car under a bridge caused national outcry over the government’s delayed response. That the same scene played out again nine years later underscores how little has changed. 

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