China's Landslides: The Price of Aggressive Development?

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Ng Han Guan /AP

Chinese rescue workers prepare to search for survivors after a landslide swept through the town of Zhouqu in Gannan prefecture, in northwestern China, on Aug. 10, 2010

Rescuers in northwestern China are continuing to search for survivors in parts of remote Zhouqu County that were engulfed by massive landslides early on Aug. 8. The death toll in the disaster has risen to more than 700, with another 1,148 missing, as heavy rains unleashed waves of mud and rock that buried houses and toppled buildings. Flooding in the country in the past month has killed another 1,454 and left more than 600 missing, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. It is the worst flooding here in more than a decade.

Premier Wen Jiabao, a frequent presence at the scene of natural disasters, has made several trips around the country in the past month, most recently to Zhouqu, where he urged rescuers to do everything possible to find survivors during the critical hours after the disaster struck. "For those who are buried under the debris, now is the most crucial time to save their lives," he told local officials, according to the state-run Xinhua news service.

Even as rescue operations unfold, though, some Chinese are questioning why their country has been hit by such extensive natural disasters this summer. The immediate cause is record rainfall. Officials have also blamed the Zhouqu disaster on the loose soil and lack of vegetation in arid Gansu province, as well as the lingering effects of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake on the stability of hillsides.

But some observers suggest that the devastation has been exacerbated by aggressive efforts to spur economic growth in China's less prosperous regions. Western China has been the target of ongoing campaigns to bring development levels closer to those of the country's booming coastal areas. Now there are calls to examine just what impact that development is having. "I hope this will lead to a review of national policy, to try to stop the grand development of the west from becoming a grand excavation of the west," says Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. "I think we should recognize how fragile the ecology is in the west of China and then change the policy."

That's just what happened in 1998, after heavy flooding killed some 4,000 people. In response, the government ordered the construction of greater flood-control mechanisms, especially along the Yangtze River, where several sections of levees failed. To curb erosion, the government paid farmers to abandon steep, hillside plots and banned logging in virgin forests. Those steps all helped reduce environmental degradation, says Ma. But as the Chinese economy has grown — it quintupled between 1998 and 2009 — the nature of the threat to river systems has changed. "Now it is construction of major projects in those regions, like dam projects and mining," Ma says. "These projects have caused a new round of destruction in the hilly regions, and the scale is pretty big."

A 2006 study by scholars from Lanzhou University, in the provincial capital, found that 50 years of human activity, including farming, logging, mining, road construction and dam-building, meant that "unstable mountainsides, avalanches, landslides and debris flows had become increasingly frequent." According to a February 2009 report by Zhouqu's Office of Science and Technology, the county had five hydroelectric plants and planned to build another six over the next two years, tripling the total power output.

"Western regions like Gansu have seen extraordinary economic growth in recent years," says Xu Xiangyang, professor of hydrology at Hohai University in Nanjing. "At the same time, local governments don't put as much emphasis on environmental protection, which is partially why landslides have been more frequent these years. Even though the central government has attached great importance to the environment, local governments often neglect it because it does not generate fast money."

Similar laments have been heard around China this summer. The country has been hit by a series of high-profile industrial and environmental accidents, including its largest recorded oil spill at the port of Dalian in mid-July, which Professor Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska estimated was up to 40 times larger than the official reported size of 1,500 tons. On July 28, a shuttered plastics factory in Nanjing exploded, killing at least 13 people. Also on that day, workers struggled to recover thousands of barrels of chemicals that were swept by floodwaters into the Songhua River in northeastern China. That same week, the Ministry of Environmental Protection reported that air quality in China deteriorated over the first half of the year, the first such decline since 2005.

So far, the public outcry has been muted. But environmentalists hope that like in 1998, when the country last saw floods of this magnitude, the extent of the destruction will cause the country to consider the cost of its unbridled expansion.

With reporting by Jessie Jiang / Beijing