China’s dizzying growth over the past four decades has erected huge cities where villages and plantations once stood. Cities attracted factories, and factories attracted workers. Success has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and the harsh rural conditions they faced.
These cities now face the new challenge of adapting to the extreme climate caused by climate change, a possibility few considered as the country embarked on its extraordinary economic transformation. China’s rapid and confusing urbanization has somehow made it more difficult to meet the challenge.
No weather event can be directly linked to climate change, but the storm that flooded Zhengzhou and other cities in central China last week, killing at least 69 people on Monday (26), reflects an extreme global weather pattern that recently experienced deadly flooding. in Germany and Belgium and high heat and forest fires in Siberia. The floods in China, which have overwhelmed metro lines, razed roads and isolated villages, also underscore the environmental vulnerabilities that have accompanied the country’s economic success but could undermine it.
China has always experienced flooding, but as Kong Feng, then a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in 2019, flooding in China’s cities in recent years is “a general manifestation of the problems. urban areas of the country “.
The vast expansion of roads, subways, and railroads in cities that have swelled almost overnight means there are fewer places where rain can be safely absorbed, disrupting what scientists are calling the natural hydrological cycle.
Faith Chan, a professor of geology at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, eastern China, said cities across the country – and there are 93 of them with over a million people – had modernized at a time when the Chinese leadership was giving China less priority. than economic growth.
“If they had the option of rebuilding a city or planning one, I think they would agree to make it more balanced,” said Chan, who is also a visiting professor at the University’s Water @ Leeds Research Institute. from Leeds.
China has already taken steps to start tackling climate change. Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader to make the issue a national priority.
As early as 2013, Xi had promised to build an “ecological civilization” in China. “We must maintain harmony between man and nature and pursue sustainable development,” he said in a speech in Geneva in 2013.
The country has almost quintupled the area of green space in its cities over the past 20 years. He adopted a pilot program to create “sponge cities,” including Zhengzhou, that better absorb rainfall. Last year, Xi pledged to accelerate emission reductions and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. This was a tectonic policy shift and could be one in practice as well.
The question is whether it is too late. Even though countries like China and the United States are rapidly reducing greenhouse gases, warming those already emitted may have lasting consequences.
Rising sea levels now threaten China’s coastal metropolises, as increasingly severe storms hit inland cities like Zhengzhou, which sag under the weight of hastily planned development, complete with buildings and sometimes poorly constructed infrastructure.
Even Beijing, which was hit by a rapid and deadly flood in 2012 that left 79 people dead, still lacks the drainage system needed to suck water from a major storm, despite the capital’s glittering architectural landmarks that represent the rise of China. .
In Zhengzhou, authorities described the torrential rains that fell last week as a storm unprecedented in a millennium that no planning could have prevented.
Yet people have asked why the city’s new subway system was inundated, trapping passengers as the water steadily rose, and why a “smart tunnel” under the city’s third ring was flooded so quickly that those in the car had little time to escape.
The worsening impact of climate change could pose a challenge for the Chinese Communist Party, as political power in China has long been associated with the ability to bring natural disasters under control. A public uprising several years ago against toxic air pollution in Beijing and other cities forced the government to act.
Zhengzhou’s experience, however, highlights the extent of the challenges ahead and the limits of easy solutions.
Once a simple crossroads south of a bend in the Yellow River, the city has grown exponentially since China’s economic reforms began more than 40 years ago.
Today, skyscrapers and apartment towers stretch out into the distance. The city’s population has doubled since 2002, reaching 12.6 million.
Floods in Zhengzhou are so frequent that locals joke about it. “You don’t have to envy cities where you can see the sea,” read a comment online during a flood in 2011, according to a report in a local newspaper. “Today you can see the sea in Zhengzhou.”
In 2016, the city was one of 16 chosen for a pilot program to expand green space to mitigate flooding – the “sponge city” concept.
The idea, similar to what American planners call “low impact development”, is to channel water from dense urban spaces to parks and lakes, where it can be absorbed or even recycled.
Yu Kongjian, dean of the Peking University School of Landscape, takes credit for popularizing the idea in China. He said in a telephone interview that in its rapid development since the 1980s, China had resorted to Western projects unsuited to the extremes already experienced by the country’s climate. The cities were covered with cement, “colonized”, as he puts it, by “gray infrastructure”.
China, he said, must “relive ancient wisdom and perfect it”, reserving natural spaces for water and vegetation, as ancient farmers did.
As part of the program, Zhengzhou built more than 4,800 kilometers of new drainage, cleaned up 125 flood-prone areas and created hundreds of hectares of new green space, according to an article in the Zhengzhou Daily, a public newspaper.
One of these spaces is Diehu Park or Butterfly Lake Park, where willows and camphor trees surround an artificial lake. Opened in October, it was also flooded last week.
“The sponges absorb water slowly, not quickly,” Dai Chuanying, a park maintenance worker, said on Friday. “When there is too much water, the sponge cannot absorb everything.”
Even before the flooding last week, some questioned the concept. After the city was flooded in 2019, the Chinese Youth Daily, also of the party, lamented that the high spending on the project did not lead to significant improvements.
Others have pointed out that sponge cities are not a panacea. They were never intended for torrential rains like the one in Zhengzhou on July 20, when 200 millimeters of water fell in an hour.
“Although the Sponge City initiative is an excellent sustainability approach for storm management, it is still questionable whether it can be seen as the complete solution for flood risk management in a changing climate. “said Konstantinos Papadikis, Dean of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool. Xi’an University School of Design.
The factories that have fueled China’s growth have also produced more and more gases that contribute to climate change, while heavily polluting the air. Like other countries, China today faces the task of reducing its emissions and preparing for the effects of global warming, which increasingly seems inevitable.