Flood Explosion and Land Subsidence in China, Natural or Man-made Disaster?

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Simone Gao: Hello everyone, welcome to Zooming In China. I’m Simone Gao. 

China’s Henan Province was hit by historic heavy rains on July 20. The subway in Zhengzhou, the capital of the province, was submerged in the floods. The city remains in a state of paralysis. Floods in the urban area are surging and up to 1.2 million Chinese citizens have been displaced by the water. Chinese officials have admitted to 25 deaths, though the actual count may be much higher.

The scenes from Henan are horrific, the worst coming from a Zhengzhou subway station platform where citizens were caught by rising waters in the subway cars and were suffocated by a lack of oxygen. Photos and videos of many corpses on the Zhengzhou subway station platform have gone viral on social media. Over 500 people were rescued from that train, though media reports indicate that more than 10,000 were trapped on trains throughout Henan, some for more than 40 hours with food and water having to be brought in by railway workers.

Outside of Zehngzhou, the water levels of 32 large and medium-sized reservoirs across the province exceeded the limit. According to Agence France-Presse, the Chinese military warned that a reservoir in Luoyang was likely "to collapse at any time," and the whole of Henan was in a desperate situation. That situation is not expected to end soon.

The rains began on July 17th, ranging from moderately heavy in some areas to extremely heavy in others. Disaster-stricken Henan received more precipitation in three days then they normally would in a year. Monitoring at the Central Meteorological Observatory showed that Zhengzhou received nearly 8 inches of water in just one hour, 4 and 5 pm, on the 20th. That 8 inches, added to the total from three full days of heavy rains, raised the flood control emergency response to Level 1. 

The heavy rainfall was mainly concentrated in the western, northern and central regions. Extremely heavy rain occurred in Zhengzhou, Jiaozuo, Xinxiang, Luoyang, Nanyang, Pingdingshan, Jiyuan, Anyang, Hebi, and Xuchang.

Meteorologists report that the heavy precipitation is expected to last until the evening of the 21st. The heavy precipitation is still concentrated in the northem and central areas of Henan, and the precipitation can reach 4 to 10 inches, and locally 12 to 15 ½ inches. Large-scale heavy precipitation is not expected in Henan Province from the 22ndto the 26th.

But while the worst of the flood conditions may come to an end tonight, the cleanup and recovery is likely to take far longer, especially business cleanup. Reports broke late yesterday of an explosion at Dengdian Group Aluminum Alloy Company. in Henan Province. 

The explosion was caused by soaring water levels from the Yinghe River. The waters exceeded company warning levels around 4 o’clock in the morning. Shortly after, the wall collapsed, and the plant was flooded. By 6 o'clock, the flood spread to the alloy tank in the plant, causing the explosion. Fortunately, there were no casualties.

Another business currently at risk is Apple’s foundry factory Foxconn. Foxconn has three factories in Zhengzhou and is the main manufacturing base for iPhone production with more than 90 production lines and around 350,000 workers. 

About half of the world’s Apple mobile phones are from Foxconn in the Zhengzhou factory. This company is also critical for the Zhengzhou economy, accounting for 81% of Zhengzhou’s total exports. 

Foxconn’s representative told reporters on the evening of July 20th that "Currently, operations are normal and will continue to monitor the situation.” With rains expected to continue through this evening, the concern over this critical industry remains.

While the impacts of Henan’s floods are obvious, the causes may not be as simple. Chinese meteorologists gave the environmental perspective, saying that the reason for such extreme rainstorms is the special airflow characteristics combined with the topography of Henan. Instead of elaborating on those details, I want to focus here on another possible factor causing floods: the connection between China's reservoirs and dam systems and the frequent floods in contemporary China.

There are four major water systems in Henan, namely the Yellow River, Huaihe River, Weihe River and Hanshui River. Historical records show repeated flooding in that region throughout its history. The most recent one was the "75.8 Flood" on August 6th of 1975 when heavy rains triggered a major flood in the upper reaches of the Huaihe River causing a small reservoir to collapse.

Early in the morning on August 8th, two large reservoirs and nearly 60 small and medium-sized reservoirs collapsed one after another within just a few hours. Among them, the Banqiao Reservoir collapsed. The maximum instantaneous flow out of that reservoir was 79,000 cubic meters per second. The flood peak was nearly 50 feet high and with 36 million cubic feet forced downstream within 6 hours.

The flooding caused over 63 miles of Beijing-Guangzhou railway line to be destroyed. It also laid a devastating human cost on the region. The dam collapsed at 1 am, when tens of thousands of people were still asleep, leading to mass casualties. Many villages and towns disappeared instantly.

The most conservative report of the death toll was 26,000, but the additional death toll brought about by plagues and famines caused by the flood was between 220,000 and 240,000. At that time, which was during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the government mentioned nothing about this disaster. The devastation was not revealed until many years later.

Dam failures are a common cause for the flooding in China. In an interview I did with water conservancy expert Wang Weiluo last year, he said that the Chinese have not recommended and are not good at constructing reservoirs and dams to control water. 

In 1949, when there were roughly 20 total reservoirs in China, almost all of them had been built by the Japanese during World War II. Years later, the CCP sent people to the Soviet Union to learn methods of dam construction and the proper function of a reservoir: storing floods so that water can be used in times of drought. They built that belief from the theories in Joseph Stalin’s book Political Economy. In it, Stalin claims that we have mastered the tools to defeat nature by, for example, building reservoirs. 

There are now 98,000 reservoirs in China with 52,000 reservoirs in the Yangtze River Basin alone. If the reservoirs can safely store floods to fight droughts, as the CCP said, then China should have no floods or food shortages. But this is not the case. In recent decades, China has seen severe floods repeatedly. Why is this?

Because a reservoir needs to meet certain conditions for flood storage and drought resistance. However, in China, those conditions are not met. 

First, the capacity of the reservoir must be very large. For example, the capacity of the Aswan Reservoir dam in Egypt is 1.86 times the annual runoff. China’s Three Gorges Reservoir is 8%, leaving a smaller total capacity than the 9% annual runoff of the Yangtze River. What problems can this cause? As soon as the rainfall increases, the reservoir cannot hold any of the flood. Instead, floods need to be discharged downstream so that they will not break the dam or cause overflow around the reservoir. But discharging that water will cause floods downstream. Right?

Second, flood prevention for the benefit of Chinese citizens must be the first goal rather than a secondary one. But, in the process of the CCP’s economic reform, the right to use local reservoirs has been privatized. Reservoir operators must pay the government for the right to use the dam. Because of that, operators must rely on the dam to make money, For example, power generation and the sale of the water. The more dams they operate, the more money they make. 

To meet that need, dams are often built quickly, sacrificing quality in the process. That lack of quality has become a major cause in the floods seen in town and cities downstream of the dam. In fact, Chinese reservoirs have a failure rate that is twice that of other countries. It has been reported that from 1954 to 2020, more than 3,000 reservoirs in China had failed. 

Also because of these interests, reservoir operators are reluctant to discharge the flood in the reservoirs or they would discharge it at the last minute. You can imagine, this caused great danger to the residents living downstream.  

Now, the water level of 32 large and medium-sized reservoirs in Henan has exceeded the limit, and the situation is urgent. Agence France-Presse quoted a warning issued by the People's Liberation Army, which supports local disaster relief efforts, that the Yihetan Reservoir in Luoyang "may burst at any time." 

Phoenix.com reported that the Yihetan dam had a breach of about 20 meters on the 20th. The river embankment was seriously damaged, and the dam may collapse at any time. 

According to the Global Times, Zhengzhou has begun to release floods downstream due to the seriousness of this potential disaster. The water level of Zhengzhou Changzhuang Reservoir has dropped by 70 cm in one day, indicating that the flood discharge downstream is very strong. This will cause the human and industry costs already experienced downstream to continue to worsen. 

The Henan flood disaster is not only a natural disaster but also a man-made disaster. A disaster that could have been prevented, and an example of disasters that will continue to come. 98,000 poorly constructed reservoirs in China have become a sword hanging over the heads of the Chinese people. I hope that the people in the disaster-stricken area in Henan can survive this disaster smoothly. And I hope that the Chinese government will see the need to prevent these tragedies in the future by repairing these dangerous dams.

Thanks for watching, I’m Simone Gao and I see you next time.