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Surviving in extreme conditions
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Surviving in extreme conditions

As Typhoon Morakot disappeared off China's east coast on Wednesday afternoon, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake, the nation's emergency relief teams were already preparing for their next challenge: Trying to prevent more secondary disasters.

The storm, which battered Taiwan and the Chinese mainland with heavy rain and winds of up to 119 km/h for five days, left at least 110 dead and many more injured.

It also capped a miserable summer for those who have endured months of extreme weather conditions and led to calls for improved disaster prevention measures in China's flood-prone regions.

Typhoon Morakot, the eighth to hit China this year and the worst for half a century, led to the evacuation of 1.5 million people on the mainland when it first struck off the coast of Fujian province on Sunday.

It caused 9.7 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) in damage, destroying 10,000 homes and flooding 1 million acres of cropland in Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Anhui and Jiangsu, said Ministry of Civil Affairs officials.

Heavy rain also triggered several mudslides, one of the worst being in Taishun, a mountain-side town in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, where seven three-story apartment blocks were demolished, killing two people.

"We have become used to flooding here," explained Chen Shiyang, a shopkeeper in Cangnan county of Wenzhou. "But this was more serious. We never expected this storm to be so destructive. Our roads were cut off and we lost power for more than 20 hours. It's horrific to think how many people have been killed."

Torrential rains and extreme weather conditions have wreaked havoc for millions this summer. At least 10 people died in mudslides in Chongqing municipality this month, while a gale killed at least 22 people and seriously injured 117 in central China's Henan province in June.

Figures from the Ministry of Civil Affairs showed natural disasters, 70 percent of which were meteorological events, had claimed 384 lives during the first half of this year, with 24 people still listed as missing. They also caused 39 billion yuan in damage.

The story in southern and central regions is in sharp contrast to the problems in northeastern Liaoning province, where more than 4 million people have been hit by a severe drought threatening drinking water supplies and agricultural production since late June.

"Extreme weather conditions have become more frequent in the past few years," said Xiao Ziniu, director of the National Climate Center (NCC) under the China Meteorological Administration. "Just last year, China was struck by a greater number of typhoons, as well as the worst snowstorm for 50 years in many regions of southern China from mid-January until February."

While many factors play a part, climate change is the biggest component to the volatile weather in China.

"China is one of the countries most affected by natural disasters because of its geographical location and vulnerable ecological environment. Global warming is bound to have a greater impact upon an already sensitive environment," added Xiao.

Official statistics show China has had "warmer winters" - when the temperature exceeds the historical average - for 16 years straight, while the average sea level has risen about 20 to 30 cm during the last 100 years.

"Climate change will intensify the hazards of floods and droughts in China, and the impact will be most noticeable in agriculture, water resources and forest ecological systems," said Hu Siyi, deputy director of the Ministry of Water Resources.

The landslide triggered in Taishun sparked calls from experts and the public for the central government to beef up safety checks in disaster-prone areas to help prevent secondary disasters.

"We have taken comprehensive flood prevention measures to minimize the potential negative impact," said Qiu Tingmeng, director of Fujian's flood prevention department.

A notice on the authority's website highlights regular checks on flood control dikes and areas prone to geological disasters as a top priority to prevent disasters and states, in response to the ever-worsening weather conditions, the provincial government will step up its monitoring and keep citizens informed.

"China is working conscientiously to improve emergency plans and strengthen its disaster relief ability," added Xiao at the NCC. "We are doing studies on the patterns of extreme weather events and making assessments on their potential risks to help improve response plans, as well as prevent or reduce losses."

Chen Hongjun, director of the resources and environment research center at the Guangzhou Institute of Geography, said the Chinese government had invested a huge amount in flood prevention but needed to improve safety at small and medium-sized reservoirs in storm-prone regions and make necessary repairs.

"Most of these reservoirs were built in the 1950 and 60s and are in danger of collapsing if hit by heavy rains. More importantly, we should be more careful in choosing sites to develop new communities and industries. We should avoid building them in flood-prone areas," he said.

Qin Boqiang, a researcher at Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, agreed and added China may face problems in securing investment in disaster-proof facilities.

"Although over the years China has improved a lot in its defense against disasters - reinforcing dikes and dams and raising standards for defense design - we have to be aware that the potential losses are still higher than in the past because of the growing population and production in a given region," he said. "But to build facilities that could withstand the worst disaster in 100 years would be too high a price for the government to pay.

Instead, more attention should be paid to excessive urban development and irrational human activities that have made the country more vulnerable to such natural disasters, said Qin.

"Yes, global warming has complicated the frequency and intensity of natural disasters," he continued. "But if it weren't for the many errors in our development that have damaged the environment there wouldn't be so much devastation caused by extreme weather conditions.

"The increasing number of landslides in the 39-sq-km Three Gorges Reservoir area in Chongqing municipality and Hubei province proved the vulnerability of the nature and the potential impact of human activities on it."

He said over-exploitation of arable land has heightened the risks of mudslides due to water and soil erosion, while excessive urban development has caused more frequent floods due to the reduced water absorption capacity of soil.

Over-exploitation of underground water has also led to subsidence in several major cities, especially in the Yangtze River Delta, the triangular-shaped territory that includes southern Jiangsu, northern Zhejiang and Shanghai, which sank 7.8 mm in 2007, according to research by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Despite the effects, analysts recognize that reducing carbon emissions and mitigating global warming is the key to combating climate change and minimizing its impact.

The National Action Plan on Climate Change and the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10) both contain explicit goals, aiming to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20 percent by 2010 and increase the share of renewable energy to 10 percent and forestry coverage to 20 percent.

"The newly installed wind turbine capacity in China last year was the second largest in the world, reaching 6,300 megawatts, and likely to be No 1 this year," said Xiao, who added China is also encouraging more public transport usage, a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, green buildings and "public behavioral changes".

The continuous expansion of cities, however, is the biggest hurdle when it comes to fighting carbon emissions and air pollution, said Cornie Huizenga, executive director at the Clear Air Initiative for Asian Cities Center.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 350 million people will be added to the 590-million urban population by 2025, when the nation will have 221 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants and its energy consumption will account for 20 percent of the global total.

China's CO2 emissions growth is projected to be twice as large as countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development by 2030, although per capita emissions will remain lower.

"China needs to move from awareness to analysis and action in the form of policies and investments to be really effective in fighting global warming," said Qin.

"We have to intensify climate change action, at national and local levels."

(China Daily August 14, 2009)

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