Rains Punish China's Geologically Vulnerable Areas

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Hopes are fading that more survivors will be found from flooding and landslides in northwestern China. Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 1,000 are missing. The natural disaster underlines the environmental cost China's paid for its speedy economic growth.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go next to northern China, where more than 700 people have died in mudslides, with more than 1,000 others missing. Heavy downpours are forecast for the next three days. This is a natural disaster, but maybe not entirely natural.

As NPR's Louisa Lim reports, this disaster underlines the environmental cost that China pays for its economic growth.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

LOUISA LIM: Rescuers shouted as they pulled a survivor from beneath the mountains of sludge yesterday. But now in the town of Zhouqu in the Tibetan area of Gansu, the focus is turning to disposing of the bodies of the dead. The temperature's hovering around 90, and rotting corpses are contaminating water sources. The survivors are huddled into the town's middle school, which is dealing with its own losses, according to teacher Yang Jianhua.

Mr. YANG JIANHUA (Teacher): (Through translator) Those who are homeless are temporarily settled in the classrooms, with tents pitched on the playground.

(Soundbite of water)

LIM: Today, bulldozers claw along the edge of a three-mile long swathe of the town under water. Immediate problems include dwindling fresh water, finding more flat land to pitch tents for the survivors, and how to bring in relief supplies. Another survivor, farmer Yang Bin, says the official relief operation is hampered by bottlenecks on the one road into town.

Mr. YANG BIN (Farmer): (Through translator) So many big trucks are stuck in queues on the only road, so residents from nearby villages are helping voluntarily, carrying tanks of water into the relief center into town.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: The state-run media is showcasing the heroism of the rescuers. But there's a different back story. Local officials blame the disaster on torrential rain and damage from the Sichuan earthquake two years ago. But in this poverty-stricken part of China, economic imperatives trumped everything, and ultimately exacerbated this disaster.

Greenpeace's climate change campaigner Li Yan says the local government depended on natural resources to make money. This resulted in deforestation, followed by a major campaign of dam-building to stimulate economic growth.

Ms. LI YAN (Greenpeace): After 1998, after the big floods in Yangtze River basin, the national government imposed a big program of natural forest protection in the purpose of soil conservation. That might contribute to local government's interest in other approach to make money, to make profits, like hydropower and like mineral resources, and other ways.

LIM: The town was already known to be geologically vulnerable, suffering three major mudslides over the past couple of decades. But even so, 41 hydropower stations were built in this area in four years from 2003, heightening the risks.

The Chinese press is reporting that two years ago, geological experts recommended that Zhouqu itself be moved, because of the numerous hazards. But local officials argued the cost would be too high. Today, the cost of that inaction is becoming clear.

Louisa Lim, NPR News Beijing.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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