As China Boomed, It Didn’t Take Climate Change Into Account. Now It Must.
China’s meteoric growth over the past four decades has erected thriving cities where there had been hamlets and farmland. Cities attracted factories and factories attracted workers. The boom lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the poverty and rural hardships they once faced.
Today, these cities face the daunting new challenge of adapting to the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change, a possibility few gave much thought to as the country embarked on its extraordinary economic transformation. China’s rapid and jumbled urbanization has, in some ways, made the challenge more difficult.
No weather event can be directly linked to climate change, but the storm that flooded Zhengzhou and other central Chinese cities last week, killing at least 69 people on Monday, reflects a global trend that recently saw flooding fatal in Germany and Belgium. and the extreme heat and forest fires in Siberia. The floods in China also highlight the environmental vulnerabilities that accompanied the country’s economic boom and could further undermine it.
China has always experienced flooding, but as Kong Feng, then a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in 2019, the flooding of cities across China in recent years is “a general manifestation of urban problems’ in the country.
The vast expansion of roads, subways and railroads in cities that swelled almost overnight meant there were fewer places where rain could be safely absorbed, disrupting what scientists are calling the natural hydrological cycle.
Faith Chan, a professor of geology at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo in eastern China, said cities in the country – and there are 93 of them with over a million people – have modernized to a time when Chinese leaders have made climate resilience less of a priority than economic growth.
“If they had the option of rebuilding a city or planning one, I think they would agree to make it more balanced,” said Chan, who is also a visiting scholar at the Water @ Research Institute. Leeds University. from Leeds.
China has already taken steps to start tackling climate change. Xi Jinping is the country’s first leader to make the issue a national priority.
As early as 2013, Xi had promised to build an “ecological civilization” in China. “We must maintain harmony between man and nature and pursue sustainable development,” he said in a speech in Geneva in 2013.
The country has almost quintupled the area of green space in its cities over the past two decades. He introduced a pilot program to create “sponge cities,” including Zhengzhou, that better absorb rainfall. Last year, Xi pledged to accelerate emissions reductions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. This was a tectonic policy shift and could prove to be a shift in practice also.
The question is whether it is too late. Even though countries like China and the United States are rapidly reducing greenhouse gases, warming those already emitted is likely to have lasting consequences.
Rising sea levels now threaten China’s coastal metropolises, while increasingly severe storms hit inland cities that, like Zhengzhou, are sinking under the weight of planned development in a hurry, with buildings and infrastructure sometimes poorly constructed.
Even Beijing, which was hit by a deadly flash flood in 2012 that left 79 people dead, still lacks the drainage system necessary to siphon precipitation from a major storm, despite the capital’s glittering architectural landmarks signifying the increasing status of China.
In Zhengzhou, authorities described the torrential rains that fell last week as a once-only storm in a millennium that no planning could have prevented.
Despite this, people have asked why the city’s new metro system was flooded, trapping passengers as the water steadily rose, and why a “smart tunnel” under the city’s third ring road was flooded so quickly. that those in the car had little time to escape.
The worsening impact of climate change could pose a challenge for the ruling Communist Party, given that political power in China has long been associated with the ability to bring natural disasters under control. A public groundswell several years ago over toxic air pollution in Beijing and other cities has finally forced the government to act.
“As we have more and more events like what happened in recent days, I think there will be a greater national awareness of the impact of climate change and more thinking about what we should do about it, ”said Li Shuo, a climate analyst at Greenpeace in China.
China’s urbanization has, in some ways, made adjustment easier. It displaced millions of people from rural villages which had much less defense against recurrent flooding. That is why the toll of recent floods is in the hundreds and thousands, not millions, as some of the worst disasters in the country’s history have been.
Zhengzhou’s experience, however, underscores the extent of the challenges ahead and the limits of easy solutions.
Once a simple crossroads south of a bend in the Yellow River, the city has grown exponentially since China’s economic reforms began more than 40 years ago.
Today, skyscrapers and apartment towers stretch out into the distance. The city’s population has doubled since 2001, reaching 12.6 million.
Zhengzhou is flooded so frequently that locals joke about it bitingly. “No need to envy these towns where you can see the sea,” read an online comment that spread during a flood in 2011, according to a report in a local newspaper. “Today, we welcome you to see the sea in Zhengzhou.”
China’s tightening grip
- Xi warning: A century after the founding of the Communist Party, the Chinese leader declared that foreign powers “would break their heads and spill blood” if they tried to stop its rise.
- Behind the Hong Kong takeover: A year ago, the city’s freedoms were reduced at breakneck speed. But the crackdown lasted for years and many signals were missed.
- A year later in Hong Kong: Neighbors are invited to point out each other. Children learn to look for traitors. The Communist Party is remaking the city.
- Charting China’s post-Covid path: Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, seeks to balance confidence and caution as his country progresses while other countries continue to fight the pandemic.
- A challenge for the global leadership of the United States: As President Biden predicts a struggle between democracies and their opponents, Beijing is eager to defend the other side.
- “Red tourism” flourishes: New and improved attractions dedicated to the history of the Communist Party, or a sanitized version of it, draw crowds ahead of the party’s centenary.
In 2016, the city was one of 16 chosen for a pilot program to expand green spaces to mitigate flooding – the “sponge city” concept.
The idea, much like what American planners call “low impact development”, is to channel water from dense urban spaces to parks and lakes, where it can be absorbed or even recycled.
Yu Kongjian, the dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at Peking University, is credited with popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China has turned to Western designs unsuited to the extremes already experienced by the country’s climate. The cities were covered with cement, “colonized”, as he put it, by “gray infrastructures”.
China, he said, must “revive and improve ancient wisdom”, reserving natural spaces for water and greenery as farmers once did.
As part of the program, Zhengzhou built more than 3,000 miles of new drainage, cleared 125 flood-prone areas and created hundreds of hectares of new green space, according to an article in the Zhengzhou Daily, a public newspaper.
One of these spaces is Diehu Park or Butterfly Lake Park, where weeping willows and camphor trees surround an artificial lake. It only opened last October. It was also flooded last week.
“The sponges absorb water slowly, not quickly,” Dai Chuanying, a park maintenance worker, said on Friday. “If there is too much water, the sponge cannot absorb everything.”
Even before the floods last week, some had questioned the concept. After the city experienced flooding in 2019, the China Youth Daily, a party-run newspaper, lamented that heavy spending on projects has not resulted in significant improvements.
Others noted that the sponge cities were not a panacea. They were never intended for torrential rains like the one in Zhengzhou on July 20, when eight inches of rain fell in an hour.
“While the Sponge City initiative is an excellent sustainable development approach to stormwater management, it is still questionable whether it can be seen as the complete solution to flood risk management in a climate. changing, “said Konstantinos Papadikis, dean of the School of Design at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Xi’an.
The factories that drove China’s growth have also pumped more and more gases that contribute to climate change, while seriously polluting the air. Like everywhere else, China now faces the tasks of reducing emissions and preparing for the effects of global warming that seem increasingly inevitable.
Professor Chan said that in China the issue of climate change has not been as politically polarizing as in the United States, for example. This could facilitate public support for the changes local and national governments need to make, many of which will be costly.
“I know that for cities land use issues are expensive, but we are talking about climate change,” he said. “We’re talking about future development for the next generation or the next, next generation.”
Li You contributed to the research.
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