Overdevelopment Blamed for Slides

Analysts say mismanagement of land led to erosion and mudslides in central China.

Zhouqu county in China's western Gansu province.

Updated to include current death toll, missing

HONG KONG—Overdevelopment and environmental mismanagement are at least partly to blame for a mudslide in central China’s Gansu province that left more than 1,000 people dead over the weekend, according to Chinese and Tibetan analysts.

Their claims contradict an earlier statement from Gansu Province Land and Natural Resources Bureau officials that an earthquake in nearby Sichuan province nearly two years ago destabilized the land, which caused the slide following heavy rains Sunday morning.

Wang Shijin, an associate professor at Jiangxi University’s Research Center for Environment and Resources Law Institute, said rock and soil around the seat of Zhouqu county, located in Gansu’s Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, was unusually loose before the rains.

Wang said he could not exclude land mismanagement as the cause of the slide, adding that many of China’s landslides in recent years have been the result of human error.

“Over-mining is one of the reasons [leading to landslides]. The other reason is that after mining, [the related parties] do not shut down the site, and just leave it there,” Wang said.

“No one pays attention to the safety issues which in turn affect the whole area,” he said.

Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan writer, said deforestation and over-construction of dams in the area were the two leading causes of the disaster in Zhouqu county.

“Since 2003, 47 electricity pylons have been built along the river in this little county. It’s because of this large scale of hydro-electric construction, coupled with the over-exploitation of mines in a county full of mining resources, such as gold,” Woeser said.

“Their reckless mining activities seriously damage the environment there.”

She added that local officials are trying to use the earthquake as a way to shift the focus away from the true cause of the mudslide—land mismanagement under their watch.

A Tibetan from Zhouqu, who asked to remain anonymous, said residents believe dam construction in the area may have contributed to the instability of the terrain.

“We suspect the construction of an excessive number of dams in the area might have affected the local environment and brought in unprecedented mudslides in the area.”

Residents could not escape

Residents sit outside damaged buildings as rescuers evacuate survivors in Zhouqu, Aug. 8, 2010. Credit: AFP
Rescue teams searched for more than 600 people still missing Thursday after flash floods and mudslides left 1,144 dead in Zhouqu county, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) had dispatched 5,300 soldiers, 150 vehicles, four helicopters, and 20 speed boats to Zhouqu, the agency said.

Some 1,243 people have been rescued, 42 of whom were found seriously injured, Xinhua quoted Tian Baozhong, head of the provincial civil affairs department, as saying Tuesday.

Pema Dorje, a local Tibetan who lives on the border of the county and survived the slides, said flooding on Sunday happened so quickly that many people were unable to escape.

“The flooding occurred around 1 a.m. Many people were still sleeping and could not flee. My friend, his wife, his parents, and kids are all gone. Their house is also gone … The mudslide washed everything away. Many bodies could not be found,” Pema Dorje said.

“What I know is that there are 4,000 to 5,000 people in the town. What I heard from my friends is that at least 2,000 houses were buried. I would guess that at least 4,000 people have been buried,” he said.

“Many people are trying to dig through the debris [to see if anyone is alive].”

A villager surnamed Li, who has volunteered at the hospital, said flood waters had not yet receded.

“There is still flooding at the hospital. All the streets are covered by water. Many people have been trying to save lives by digging.”

A Zhouqu resident surnamed Zhou said there appeared to be more bodies than survivors in the town.

"They are digging out [bodies] all over the place," he said. "They are all carrying corpses."

Rescue efforts hampered

This photo taken on Aug. 8, 2010 shows an aerial view of Zhouqu county after it was hit by a deadly flood-triggered landslide. Credit: AFP
Aid to the region is being hindered by unsafe roads and a lack of power, water, and communications.

A Red Cross worker in Zhouqu county said it currently takes 10 hours for the caravan of vehicles carrying relief material to travel from the capital Lanzhou to the areas hardest hit by the slides.

“Road conditions are difficult. All our relief materials and rescue crews are being sent there,” the worker said.

“We are concerned whether our relief materials will arrive on time,” he said, adding that there are many Tibetans among the injured.

An official in Gannan Tibetan Prefecture who asked to remain anonymous said many people remain unaccounted for.

“The whereabouts of 1,000 to 2,000 people are unknown. They may be buried underneath the mud,” he said.

"If these people are truly missing, then there's probably no hope for them. This stuff is like liquid concrete."

He said that Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had visited the site of the disaster in the afternoon to oversee rescue operations.

“Much of the town is buried under mud and debris … [The site] is located in the Tibetan area. Of the 130,000 residents here, a little more than 40,000 are Tibetans. The percentage of Tibetans [in the area] is not very high,” the official said.

A second Gannan official said recent rainstorms had dumped more than 90 millimeters of rain on the region in a short space of time, with the floodwaters building up into a dammed lake which then flooded the county seat.

"The county seat is situated in a pass between two hills, and it's very hard to get to," the official said.

"One one side you have the Bailong river, and on the other you have steep cliffs. The road was built along the top of the cliffs. It's the worst section of the entire Bailong riverside highway."

Another Tibetan resident of Zhouqu, who asked to remain anonymous, said that among those found dead, one-third are ethnic Tibetans and two-thirds are Chinese. He said people of all backgrounds are assisting in the rescue efforts.

“Both the local people and soldiers are involved in digging out the mudslide. Assistance has also arrived from other Tibetan areas too—they all decided to help by themselves," the Tibetan resident said.

"Since the roads are affected, there are traffic jams in the area. Outside help is finding it very difficult to get into the area.”

Risk of further slides

The head of rescue operations, a man surnamed Liu, said there had been little time to tend to the dead.

“We will take care of them soon. The health department has dispatched many workers to fumigate the area. Some have requested that the bodies be cremated,” Liu said.

He said that Tibetans were among the dead and that the rescue crew would do its best to honor local funeral traditions.

“This is an area populated by minorities. We must respect their customs,” he said.

A member of the rescue crew surnamed Zhang said that aid workers were also at risk with further rains predicted by the China Meteorological Administration through Tuesday.

“We are without power and water … The electricity we are using is from emergency generators,” Zhang said.

“We are worried that if a mudslide happens again, things will be much worse.”

A worker with the local phone company said communications to the area had been severed in the slide.

“Cables have been broken. We are not able to get in touch with people over there [at the mudslide site].”

Floods in China this year have left more than 1,100 people dead and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage across 28 provinces and regions. The flooding is the worst China has seen in a decade.

Original reporting by Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service, Li Li for RFA’s Cantonese service, and Bhungyal for RFA's Tibetan service. Translated from Mandarin by Jennifer Chou, Cantonese by Shiny Li, and Tibetan by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Joshua Lipes and Luisetta Mudie.


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