July 30th, 2012 | Caixin Swept Away Without Warning
Flashfloods and mudslides after a major rainstorm in Beijing were a combination of geological hazards and poor city management, say experts
Waiting to be refreshed, the parched riverbeds and mountainsides of Beijing’s Fangshan District were violently eroded in the sudden downpour of the July 21 rainstorm. In a matter of minutes, water levels in this area went from ankle deep to waist deep.
On that night, most residents didn’t receive any flood warning from the city authorities. No evacuation procedure was done.
In the southwestern Fangshan District, known for its mountainous landscapes, the large river basins of the Dashihe and Juma rivers flooded, causing flashfloods and mudslides in several villages. Beijing Municipality recorded 77 deaths, many in Fangshan.
“If we had received some warning of the floods, we could have at least moved some of our inventory to higher ground,” said Liu Shui, who owns a supermarket in Louzishui village and suffered nearly 300,000 yuan in losses. “This could have been avoided.
“We didn’t receive any warning. No one informed us of a flood risk – only when the roads were completely inundated did we realize the danger of the situation,” said Liu Xiuhua, a businessman from Sichuan who owns a stoneworks in the area.
On July 19, the Beijing meteorological department posted a code blue rain alert for the weekend. Hours into the rainstorm on July 21, authorities upgraded the warning level to code orange, the second-most severe weather signal after code red. However, even after the alerts, the Shidu Scenic area in Fangshan continued to accept tourists despite the high risk of mudslides.
“The monitoring system against flash floods and landslides in Fangshan is still very basic,” said Gao Jiarong, professor at the Beijing Forestry University Soil Conservation Department. “The local villagers have to keep an eye out for themselves. If there are any signs of danger, they warn other residents by shouting and sounding a gong in the village.”
During the rainstorm, most Fangshan residents said they were unaware of any government alerts and the floodwaters hit so fast that the rudimentary warning wasn’t enough.
But officials from Fangshan contend that the warning signal change during the rainstorm was sufficient. Fangshan District Chief Qi Hong said that 65,000 residents were able to safely reach higher ground thanks to warnings. “Of course some people were ignorant of the situation, or just passing through and did not react fast enough so they were caught off-guard by the flooding,” he added.
“At around 6 p.m. water started to flow in from all directions. It began at ankle height but very soon reached knee height. The water was flowing very fast and it became difficult to stand,” recounted a resident from Louzishui village. “Two or three minutes later, the water submerged everything below the waist.”
Witnessing the relentless heavy rain, Cheng Huali, the owner of a water amusement park on the Juma River, sent boatmen from her company to patrol the area. “I realized that a flashflood might be on its way.” Once Cheng arrived at her home around 7 p.m., local residents rushed to warn her of the imminent flooding. Moments after, Cheng left her home to head for higher ground just as water began splashing through her front door.
The residents of Louzishui village saw chickens, pigs, furniture, home appliances, cars and even rooftops carried away by the gushing torrents. Those caught in the flooding had no choice but to hang on to the roofs of their homes.
Floating bodies were discovered further downstream the Juma River. Many of the bodies recovered from the mud after the floodwaters had been damaged beyond recognition.
Fangshan residents said the havoc wreaked by the rainfall was not merely a natural disaster but a manmade catastrophe.
The residents of Louzishui village said the artificial rerouting of the Juma River, one of two rivers that flow through the village, did not anticipate new flood hazards. A villager said: “If they had preserved the river’s natural form, the rainwater would have dissipated more easily.”
Low rainfall over the past year left the riverbed dry. As a result, the surrounding quarries used the hardened crust of the river bed as a temporary storage facility to stack stone slabs and dump factory waste. The dried clay bottom of the river, combined with stone barriers and debris already in the river, diverted waters to inhabited areas.
According to resident Yang Liang, the last time Louzishui village saw a large flood was in 1988. Just after that flood, Yang said flood control department officials spoke with villagers with riverside homes about relocation plans. However, the plan was never carried out.
An official from Changlesi village, which was also hit badly by the rainstorm, said that villagers had raised concerns about the manmade barriers along the riverbed. “We told high-level town officials many times that there was a flood risk from stones damming the riverbed, but they never did anything.”
Fangshan District’s total land area is 1.5 times larger than the six central urban districts under direct Beijing management. Sixty percent of its area is mountainous. The local government is long on experience with flashfloods and mudslides – but remains short on emergency response plans. Between 1949 and 2005, 23 such disasters were reported in Fangshan District which resulted in 84 deaths.
According to a published paper by Liu Decheng, researcher at the Beijing Geological Research Institute, Fangshan frequently experiences rainstorms with daily precipitation surpassing 100 millimeters due to topological and atmospheric factors. The risk of mudslides is high during rainstorms although such activity is cyclical, interspersed with calm periods lasting as long as 10 years, said Liu.
“Deforestation and mining have certainly encouraged the outbreak of mudslides but Fangshan was still long overdue for a large flashflood,” added Liu. A proposal by geologists to restore natural preventative measures against mudslides has yet to reach the agendas of local policy-makers.
“The Beijing mountainous region has experienced unusually small levels of precipitation in the past 10 years,” said Gao Jiarong, a professor at Forestry University. “The government and public ignored the potential risks of flooding and mudslides, but this most recent storm has exposed the reality of the danger.”
By staff reporters Liu Hongqiao, Ren Zhongyuan and Xie Haitao