08/10/2010, 00.00
CHINA
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Dam building and deforestation, more than “natural” causes behind the Gansu disaster

by Wang Zhicheng
More than 700 people are dead and another 1,042 are missing. In more than 40 years, 126,000 hectares of forests have disappeared. More than 150 dams were built on local rivers with no regards for the local hydro-geological structure. Although hydroelectric power development fills local public coffers, the authorities have no emergency plan in case of disasters.
Zhouqu (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Emergency teams are still looking for survivors in the thick layer of debris, rocks and mud that swamped three villages in Zhouqu County (Gansu). Meanwhile, the death toll is rising rapidly. So far, 700 bodies have been recovered and another 1,042 are missing.

Chinese media have highlighted the heroic efforts and dedication of rescue teams, blaming Mother Nature for the “natural” disaster caused by torrential rains that swept over the province in the last few weeks. However, there is more than meets the eye.

The five-kilometre long and half-kilometre wide mudslide that wiped out everything on its path—houses, people and animals—was “a disaster in the making”.

According to Prof Fan Xiao, a Sichuan-based geologist, the dam-building frenzy along almost every local river over the past decades, combined with years of deforestation and poor land management, dealt a fatal blow to the environment and substantially magnified geological hazards.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, he said that for years landslides had plagued Zhouqu, a town that is one-third ethnic Tibetan.

According to historical records, the town has been struck by at least 11 massive mudslides since 1823, with untold havoc and casualties. Yet, prior to the latest tragedy, the authorities did not have any emergency plan in place in case of a natural disaster.

Once known as the ‘Shangri-La in Gansu’, the town and its immediate region have also suffered because of large-scale deforestation.  Between the 1950s and the 1990s, the government tried to turn mountain slopes into cropland. This way, more than 126,000 hectares of forest were felled between 1952 and 1990, creating about 7,300 hectares of farmland. The net result has been to unhinge the area’s ecological balance.

More recently, environmental degradation has been accentuated by dam building.  Between 2003 and 2007, the authorities built or are building 41 hydro-electrical power stations. An additional 12 are in the planning stage. All this was done, and is being done, to attract investments.

Unfortunately, most contractors involved in the dam projects failed to pay attention to the environment and see the importance of water and soil conservation.

For years, environmentalists and geologists have sounded the alarm, arguing the overdevelopment of hydropower dams, but no one listened. Thus, 156 dams have been built and dozens more are planned for the affected region.

“Local authorities have ignored daunting warnings about the severe consequences of dam-building and viewed dams as their key source of taxation,” Fan said. In fact, they have “contributed 50 per cent of Gannan’s revenue according to official statistics.” Gannan is the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in which Zhouqu is located.

Another geologist, Yang Yong, said large-scale road and railway construction near Zhouqu, including a rail link between Lanzhou and Chengdu, have also contributed to severe soil erosion and growing geological instability.

Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences have been involved since 1996 in a project designed to tackled landslide risks in the town, but have been hampered by a lack of funding.

The responsibility for Gansu’s tragedy lies with China’s unhindered economic development and a lack of concern for the environment over the past 20 years.

Still Xu Shaoshi, China’s Minister of Land and Resources, continues to claim that the Zhouqu disaster is only due to heavy rains, the Sichuan earthquake, drought and soil erosion. But is it?

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