Beijing’s floods and an ounce of prevention

Seeing photos of the terrible flooding in Beijing, I can’t help but feel for the families affected by the devastation (video). As is usual with disasters, netizens have begun to blame the gov’t for the outcome of what would likely have been tragic in many parts of the world. Hannah, the newest addition to our team, described it as “apocalyptic,” and noted that Saturday’s forecast had only called for a 60% chance of rain. While it is important to note the level of dissatisfaction with the gov’t, it is difficult to know to what extent infrastructure could have mitigated the floods. As saddening as the loss of life is, it is important to note that natural disasters are bound to happen and then the emphasis should shift to responding to it as it unfolds and in its aftermath.

While I am reminded of the outrage that followed Hurricane Katrina (which was also a reflection of simmering dissatisfaction with President Bush), I am also reminded of the floods my students experienced in Guangxi a few years prior.

Longzhou is located where two rivers meet, and heavy rains upstream lead to the water rising over 10 meters in just a few hours in 2008. Under the cover of night, the water rose up over the cliffs, crossed the narrow street, spilled across the basketball courts and inundated dormitories and classrooms. With no emergency plan and no warning of what was headed their way (there had been no plan to suspend classes), students began to climb higher in the buildings only to be cut off from escape routes and were stranded with few supplies.

One student told me that they were stuck in a classroom on the second floor and had to sleep at their desks that night. As the only Christian in her class she had tried tirelessly before to introduce her classmates to Jesus, but that night, they all became seekers. With no teachers or faculty to offer them a sense of safety (or to prevent her from testifying), many of the students turned to her for prayers of protection. They simply had no idea of what else to do.

The next day rescue teams arrived to pull people from their dorms, and began the months of repairs and cleaning up. The military, of which there is a lot of next to the border with Vietnam, was quickly mobilized and fortunately none of the students died from this disaster.

For the most part when these tragic events happen, China is excellent at recovering. After all, in the past 100 years there have been dozens of natural and man-made disasters. Disasters happen, and there is only so much that can be done to mitigate downpours like Beijing experienced, what we should be concerned about is the needless loss of life caused by poor emergency planning. Floods and earthquakes happen (although S. Korea fared much better with the same downpour), but not knowing what to do in these situations exacerbates the consequences. There should also be a further emphasis on storm warning systems to alert the public to get out of harms way, as a large number of people seemed to have been caught off guard.

In my five years working in public institutions in China I never witnessed any kind of drill for responding to an emergency (and I worked for 2 years in a very large hospital). I am also reminded of a blog post from a school in Liuzhou, Guangxi showing a dramatic fire drill that looked more like something from Universal Studios than an actual attempt at emergency preparedness. For the amount they spent hosting this stunt, they probably could have installed smoke detectors, which the author notes that they still don’t have.

To me, this is the more important story with Beijing’s flood. Yes, infrastructure is lagging behind (the same is true in many American cities), but China has been constantly improving their systems and getting them up to international standards takes time (I dislike this argument for many things, but with infrastructure there is no way of getting around the time issue). However, providing emergency planning is a relatively simple solution, that can make a big difference quickly and cost effectively. While Beijing looks for a scapegoat for their infrastructure problems, they should be working on education and warning systems that effectively prevent similar scenes from unfolding.

One response to “Beijing’s floods and an ounce of prevention”

  1. Chopstik says:

    “While Beijing looks for a scapegoat for their infrastructure problems, they should be working on education and warning systems that effectively prevent similar scenes from unfolding”

    Tom, that would first require accountability in order to determine where the failures actually were and then working to resolve those issues so that they would not recur. Unfortunately, I sincerely doubt that will occur. However, to be fair, it rarely does anywhere power might be altered.

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