Beijing floods: Why the city's infrastructure failed

By Alexa Olesen

Beijing: As China's flood-ravaged capital dealt with the aftermath of the heaviest rain in six decades Monday, including the deaths of 37 people, questions were being raised about whether the city's push for modernisation came at the expense of basic infrastructure such as drainage networks.

Rescuers were still searching buildings that collapsed during Saturday night's torrential downpour and some roads that were covered in waist-deep water remained closed. The city government said as of Sunday night, 25 people had drowned, six were killed when houses collapsed, one was hit by lightning and five were electrocuted by fallen power lines.

Beijing residents shared photos online of submerged cars stranded on flooded streets, city buses with water up to commuters' knees and cascades of water rushing down the steps of overpasses.

The official China Daily newspaper reported that 60,000 people had been evacuated from their homes and damages from the storm had reached at least 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion).

Although the worst-hit areas were in rural hilly outskirts of the city, the scale of the disaster was a major embarrassment for Beijing, the showcase capital of China where things like this are not supposed to happen.

 Beijing floods: Why the citys infrastructure failed

A taxi driver walks away after his car was stranded in a flooded street following a heavy rain in Beijing. AP

The city has seen tens of billions of dollars poured into its modernisation, adding iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics, the world's second-largest airport, new subway lines and dazzling skyscrapers — all while basics like water drainage were apparently neglected.

Many were left wondering how badly prepared other less-prosperous parts of China must be.

"If so much chaos can be triggered in Beijing, the capital of the nation, problems in urban infrastructure of many other places can only be worse," said a commentary in Monday's state-run Global Times newspaper. "In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies."

There was similar criticism on the popular microblog service, Sina Weibo.

"This is China's capital of Beijing. Look what happens when it's hit by a rainstorm," wrote Weibo user Wen Hui. "The drainage systems of Rome that were built 2,500 years ago are still in use and you can drive a car through them. Can a dog get through Beijing's drainage tunnels?"

The criticism mirrors some of that seen after a high-speed train crash in Wenzhou in southeastern China a year ago Monday. That turned into a public-relations nightmare for the government and led many to question the quality of infrastructure in the country and the government's transparency on disasters.

Some pointed out that Saturday's deluge was historic in nature, with the Global Times noting it was the heaviest rainstorm in the capital in 61 years.

"In just in one day, it rained as much as it normally rains in six months in Beijing," said Zhang Junfeng, a senior engineer from the Ministry of Transport who runs weekend tours of Beijing reservoirs and gives lectures on water conservancy. "No drainage system can withstand rains this big."

The capital's skies were clear Monday, with traffic largely back to normal and the city's main airport operating normally after hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed over the weekend. But hard hit areas were still feeling the effects.

In Qinglonghu, a village about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from downtown Beijing where many migrant workers from surrounding provinces have settled, at least two dozen single-story brick homes were flooded. Local residents said Monday they were terrified to go back into their homes for fear they would collapse. They said they had no drinking water or food and had yet to get any assistance from local officials.

At least three people from the village were believed killed, locals said, including a man crushed by a falling power line and a woman and her baby daughter who were washed away.

"We couldn't save them," said 50-year-old Wang Lianfeng, a villager who had taken shelter on a roof when she saw the woman and her 8-month-old girl swept away. Wang sobbed as she described being unable to reach them. She said the body of the girl was found but the mother is still missing.

Other areas around Qinglonghu appeared minimally affected. Piles of dirt from a large construction site appeared to have formed a dam that kept the downpour from draining into a nearby river.

The village is in Fangshan district, the worst hit area of the city, which received 460 millimeters (18.4 inches) of rain on Saturday.

Heavy rain also proved deadly elsewhere in the country. Six people were killed by landslides in Sichuan province in the west, Xinhua said, citing disaster officials. Four people died in Shanxi province in the north when their truck was swept away by a rain-swollen river. At least eight people died and 17 were missing after heavy rains hit in neighboring Shaanxi province.

China suffers flooding and dozens of storm-related deaths every summer during its rainy season, but such a heavy downpour in relatively dry Beijing is unusual.


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Updated Date: Jul 23, 2012 13:49:48 IST

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