Between 29 July and 1 August, the north of China saw record-breaking rainfall. More than 100mm fell over 174,000 sq km of land (the equivalent of Greece and the Netherlands combined), according to the National Meteorological Centre. The Hebei county of Lincheng was hit worst, with 1,003mm, compared to its annual average of 500mm. Beijing, meanwhile, saw its heaviest rainfall since instrumental records began in 1883.
The downpours had severe consequences. Over five million people were affected across Hebei and Beijing, with 62 killed and 34 missing. Infrastructure was also damaged, and the economic toll across Hebei approached 100 billion yuan (US$13.7 billion).
It has only been two years since rainstorms in Henan affected 15 million people, with 398 killed or missing. But now, better forecasting and emergency-response systems mean fewer casualties.
Despite that improvement, the urban flooding and waterlogging caused by extreme precipitation is highlighting new challenges brought by climate change, as well as issues with urban infrastructure construction and cross-regional coordination.
The floods in Hebei this year and the 2021 Henan floods are closely linked to typhoons travelling further north. There’s a very clear trend over these years, which is probably linked to climate change.
Chao Qingchen, director, National Climate Centre
“China needs a clearer climate adaptation strategy, a more open approach to adopting lessons from other countries, and more leverage of market and civil society forces,” Liu Daizong, East Asia director for the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), tells China Dialogue.
Hotter oceans, stronger typhoons
At a 3 August press conference, Zhang Hengde, deputy director of the China Meteorological Administration, described the rainfall across the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as unusual and having complex causes. But, he said, there were three important factors: high levels of moisture in the air, a high-pressure blocking pattern, and the effect of mountain ranges pushing air upwards.
Specifically, on 29 July a weakening Typhoon Doksuri travelled north across China, bringing huge amounts of moist air, while Typhoon Khanun was also sending wet air towards the northern plains. Because of blocking patterns (when a weather front becomes almost stationary because it is ‘blocked’ by an area of high pressure) associated with the subtropics and a high-pressure ridge to the north, those two flows of moist air reached northern China and could go no further. The Taihang and Yanshan mountain ranges then forced the air upwards into cooler altitudes, where the moisture condensed into raindrops.
The record-breaking rain could be a one-off, but it is more likely another example of extreme weather becoming more frequent under climate change. Much research has already found that increasingly warm seawater generates increasingly intense typhoons, both in terms of wind speed and precipitation.
“The floods in Hebei this year and the 2021 Henan floods are closely linked to typhoons travelling further north. There’s a very clear trend over these years, which is probably linked to climate change,” Chao Qingchen, director of the National Climate Centre, told China Dialogue.
In early August, the ocean hit a record-breaking average global temperature of 20.96C. Scientists say that, alongside the El Niño phenomenon, climate change is the main driver of those warmer waters, as the ocean absorbs more than 90 per cent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
“There’s been a significant increase in the frequency of flooding over the last decade,” said Hao Nan of the Zhuoming Disaster Information Centre. “And since the turn of the century, the number of super typhoons has risen. Ten-plus years ago, China would get hit by a cyclone once every two or three years. But there have been 20 destructive cyclones so far since the start of 2022.”
Improved rescue services
With climate risks already apparent, it is not enough to only curb emissions to stop the situation worsening. Adaptations for increasingly unstable climate systems are also needed.
China is one of the countries affected most severely by natural disasters. A 2020 report from the United Nations and the Catholic University of Leuven, identified 577 such disasters in China between 2000 and 2019 – more than any other country.
In 2009, Zou Ming, formerly head of the disaster relief department at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, described natural disasters in China as: “varied in type, high in frequency, wide in distribution, and causing huge damage.” According to data from the Ministry of Emergency Management, 112 million people in China were affected by disaster in 2022, though this figure includes some affected more than once, with 554 killed or missing and 47,000 buildings destroyed. Direct economic losses stood at 238.65 billion yuan (US$33 billion). Flooding and drought were the two most destructive types of disaster.
Although those impacts must not be understated, a longer-term view shows that China has made huge improvements in cutting disaster-related losses in the past decade. When comparing the consequences of natural disasters in the 2000-2012 period to 2013-2021, deaths and missing person numbers have fallen 87.2 per cent, destroyed building numbers are down 87.4 per cent, and economic losses as a percentage of GDP are down 61.7 per cent.
And while huge numbers of people were affected by disasters in 2022, those three indicators still fell by 30.8 per cent, 63.3 per cent and 25.3 per cent respectively, when compared to the average of the previous five years.
“Casualties of natural disasters are a small fraction of what they used to be, with a huge drop compared with five years ago. So, while disasters are becoming more frequent and more intense, the losses caused are reducing,” says Hao Nan. He thinks the fall in casualty numbers is mostly down to improved disaster-response systems, particularly a rapid expansion in rescue capacity.
“From about 2016, some civil society groups started to learn how to use inflatable rescue boats. That practice expanded, providing large-scale water-rescue capabilities, which some teams started to use during flooding,” Hao explains.
According to Hao, inflatable rescue boat techniques were first used on fast-flowing rivers and coastal waters, as the vessels are stable and safe in such situations. Use during flooding began in 2016 and this has spread from civil society to the fire and rescue service.
“Civil society acquired the skills first, with different groups learning from each other and figuring out how to apply them. Then the official rescue services joined in.” According to Hao, that interaction has meant huge advances in rescue capabilities over the past decade.
There is a lot of civil society participation in emergency rescue and most government departments support it, Hao explained. According to the Ministry of Emergency Management, there were less than 100 water-rescue teams prior to 2014. By 2019, this had grown to about 1,000, and today there are about 4,000. “Growth has been faster than elsewhere in the world. No other country has so many professional-level water-rescue teams,” Hao says.
Frequent natural disasters mean China has plenty of experience in disaster relief. This has incidentally led to an improved capacity to adapt to climate change, as disaster relief and resilience are important parts of climate-adaptation strategies.
Hao Nan says: “The idea of climate adaptation came from the environmental field, but the disaster-relief field is constantly working on reducing disaster risks and already has a lot of the solutions.”
In 2015, the third UN conference on disaster risk adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. This identified four key areas for action: understanding disaster risk; strengthening governance to manage the risk; investing in disaster reduction for resilience; and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response, recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction. There is significant overlap here with climate adaptation work.
Climate adaptation requires long-term strategies
China’s disaster-response systems are worthy of praise, but it could do a lot more work on disaster prevention.
The recent flooding exposed a number of issues, such as a lack of flood-defence infrastructure, a lack of readiness to use water-retention zones to control floods, and a failure to coordinate along rivers. These are all due, by varying degrees, to a lack of joined-up governance.
Zheng Yan is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Research Institute for Eco-civilization, and a contributor to reports by the UN’s climate science body, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). In an interview with Intellectual magazine, she said that government bodies stick to their locality or function when managing water resources, which leads to overlap and conflicts. For example, it is claimed that flooding is managed on a whole-river basis. But as floodwaters approach, city governments and their departments aim only to move the problem on as quickly as possible – putting cities downstream under even more pressure.
This doesn’t just make disasters more destructive, it also increases the cost of preparing for them.
Liu describes work he has undertaken with the ITDP in a coastal city: “It was a city on the lower reaches of the Yangtze, developed but prone to floods. So, it took flood prevention very seriously and spent several hundred billion yuan on a 1,000 mu (67 hectare)flood-diversion zone. A more sensible approach would have been to build that zone upstream, perhaps in Anhui, where land would have been much cheaper. But the city had to build at home, rather than make more reasonable, whole-river arrangements, due to the way administrative jurisdictions work.”
He describes China’s climate-adaptation work as being more about tactics than strategy: “Tactics means responding to disasters. Strategy means taking two or three decades to rebuild cities to adapt to climate change. China takes disaster relief very seriously, but isn’t paying enough attention to long-term climate adaptation.”
The Netherlands, like China, is often affected by floods. Half of the country lies below sea level. Facing more frequent and worsening floods, the country shifted from a flood prevention policy that relied on dykes: since 2007, the Room for the River programme has built over 30 projects, including water buffers, along the Meuse and Rhine. During the 2021 European floods, 220 people were killed in Germany and Belgium. The Netherlands, downstream on the Rhine, saw no deaths.
China has seen huge urbanisation over the past 40 years. And as cities have expanded, flood plains have been turned into construction sites. Natural flood-retention capacity has been reduced. With urbanisation slowing, now may be the time for a decades-long strategic plan for climate adaptation.
“China’s social governance works top-down. So first, the different government ministries need to reach a consensus on how to push forward with adaptation. Then social forces need to be brought into play, with all stakeholders and the market participating, because sometimes the government’s solutions are not the best,” says Liu.
Jiang Zhaoli, deputy head of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s Department of Climate Change, recently said that more than two thirds of China’s provinces will have completed climate adaptation action plans by the end of the year. Meanwhile, the ministry is creating a panel of adaptation experts and a new batch of city-level adaptation trials is due to start this year.
Hao Nan believes widespread individual participation – not just top-level policy design – is needed for better climate-change adaptation: “Climate change is sure to affect everyone, so true adaptation requires everyone to participate. We can’t leave it up to the professionals, because when disaster strikes, they can’t do enough. Everyone needs to realise climate change affects them; everyone needs to get involved. That’s the only way we can cope with the increasingly extreme weather of the future.”
This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.
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