x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Beijing residents ask how city could flood so easily

Angry residents blame glory-seeking officials who neglect mundane jobs to focus on high-profile projects.

A rescue boat approaches a partially submerged car after the heaviest rainfall in six decades hit Beijing’s Fangshan district.
A rescue boat approaches a partially submerged car after the heaviest rainfall in six decades hit Beijing’s Fangshan district.

BEIJING // As parts of the Chinese capital continue the clean-up operation after last weekend's floods, questions have been raised as to why much of the city, in common with many other urban areas in China, appears unable to cope with heavy rainfall.

Angry residents have asked whether municipal officials are more concerned with developing high-profile projects that might boost their careers, than dealing with more mundane infrastructure issues such as drainage.

In the deluge that began on Saturday afternoon Beijing was battered by the heaviest rains for six decades. It caused vast areas of the city and outlying regions to flood, leaving at least 37 people dead.

The victims included more than two dozen who drowned, six killed in building collapses and five electrocuted by power lines.

One area received as much as 460 millimetres of rain, with other parts of the city averaging 170mm - about one quarter of the normal annual rainfall. In the chaos that ensued, roads became rivers, houses collapsed and thousands were stranded at the international airport when flights were cancelled.

The state media estimated economic losses would total 10 billion yuan (Dh5.75 billion).

While the rainfall was exceptional, the floods were not the first Beijing has suffered in recent years, with parts of the capital also becoming submerged after downpours in June last year. Sixty-two per cent of cities on mainland China experienced flooding between 2008 and 2010, according to ministry of housing and urban-rural development figures reported in the Taiwan-based China Times.

China's popular microblog sites have been an outlet for public anger after the floods.

On the blog Tea Leaf Nation, Duan Xingyan, a police officer in Jiangxi province, said: "Because the drainage system is not an image project, mayors pay little attention to it. The city is submerged every time there is heavy rain. It's not a natural disaster but a man-made one."

Jeremy Goldkorn, editor-in-chief of Danwei, a Beijing-based website that tracks Chinese media and the internet, said that online, there was "certainly the insinuation ... that other, more glamorous, projects take precedence and something less glamorous, such as water drainage, is neglected".

It was "a common problem" in China, and other countries where accountability is weak, for officials to focus on infrastructure and other construction projects "that are prominently seen, and neglect everything else", said Barry Sautman, a political analyst and associate professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"If people can see something and remark on the association between the official and their accomplishment of that project, it's to the credit of that official. If it's invisible, such as sewers, there's less attention paid to it," he said.

Experts also acknowledge that the rapid pace of China's urbanisation has inevitably put pressure on the infrastructure of cities.

About 13 million people move to urban areas in China each year and many cities have vast swathes of residential and commercial projects under development.

Enoch He, 25, an engineer originally from Chongqing and now based in the capital, said the drainage systems worked well in many parts of the city.

The rapid development the country has been through meant problems were inevitable, he added. "All of this building [has happened] in the past 20 or 30 years so the construction won't be that good. This is a new country. In 20 years' time, this won't happen," he said.

Another strain comes from increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, said Joseph Hunwei Lee, the vice president for research and graduate studies and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

"No matter what strategy you have, it's still quite a challenge to cope when you have the impact of climate change and unusual weather events," Mr Lee said.

"It's not that there's no awareness. Even if there's awareness, it takes time to build infrastructure."

After the online reaction and criticism in the media, the authorities might decide to punish individuals, suggested Mr Sautman.

"If people are accusing officials of being negligent and only being involved in prominent projects, rather than day-to-day systems, I would think it's something the top echelons could investigate and do something about," he said. "It's not just harmful to the party's reputation, but it's damaging economically."

dbardsley@thenational.ae

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