AFTERMATH OF A DISASTER: A house for construction workers of a hydropower plant in Kangding County, Sichuan Province, is destroyed by a landslide on June 15 (JIANG HONGJIN)
Following a surge of flood-triggered landslides in some regions in south China, on June 17 the Ministry of Land and Resources (MLR) activated an emergency response program to combat geological disasters.
On June 15, the ministry sent out expert teams to Nanping City in Fujian Province, Kangding County in Sichuan Province and Cangwu County in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which have been struck by deadly geological disasters recently. In the early morning of June 15, mountain collapses in Kangding killed 23 people and injured seven. Geological disasters in a township in Cangwu led to four deaths and 11 missing people.
After the emergency response was launched, the ministry vowed to take three measures to prevent further chaos. First is to enhance meteorological monitoring, especially rainfall, in areas prone to geological disasters. Second is to arrange people to work in shifts to forecast and send warnings about potential disasters around the clock. Third is to have renowned geological experts stand by for long-distance meetings and field survey missions at disaster sites.
A precarious year
According to the ministry, there were 4,175 geological disasters nationwide between January and May, including 2,915 landslides, 927 collapses, 138 mudslides, 142 cases of ground subsidence and 32 cases of ground cracks. Seventy-one of the 4,175 disasters caused casualties. There have been 131 deaths altogether and direct economic losses totaling 611 million yuan ($89.9 million). The number of disasters, the death toll and direct economic losses in the first five months of 2010 have all surpassed last year's numbers.
Chronologically, May saw a sharp increase in natural disasters with the flood season in most areas in China beginning. A total of 3,389 geological disasters occurred that month.
Explaining why disasters have increased in China, Yin Yueping, a senior research fellow with the China Geological Survey, said, "The increasingly unpredictable heavy rains in a small area and downpours caused by strong tropical storms have increased the difficulty in monitoring and forecasting geological disasters. This year's precipitation in mountainous areas of western regions has so far been 10 to 20 percent higher than that of last year."
Yin explained that China's southwestern areas experienced the worst drought in decades since the end of last year and the lasting drought led to cracks on rocks, which increases the chances of geological disasters, such as collapses, landslides and mudslides during strong rainfalls. He also said China's northwestern areas have suffered from extremely low temperatures and storms for several winters in a row and a sudden increase in temperatures and thawing of a large amount of snow and ice in these areas has increased their vulnerability.
According to Yin, another trend of geological calamities in China is that they are no longer confined to flood seasons and humid areas due to the effects of global warming. One example he gives was a major loess collapse in Yulin City, Shaanxi Province, on March 10, which buried 44 people and killed 26 of them. The loess disaster was triggered by melting snow seeping into soil.
Yin added man-made factors behind the geological disasters are also on the rise. "Due to the lack of geological studies and staff, casualties are caused by poorly selected sites for construction projects," said Yin.
Meanwhile, the MLR has pooled more resources into forecasting geological disasters and reducing losses. The ministry said governments have installed more than 100,000 sets of ground fissure alarms and landslide warning censors nationwide. Local authorities used TV, radio and mobile phone text messages to spread warnings about geological disasters.
The ministry said 157 geological disasters were successfully forecast from January to May and 3,825 people were evacuated from hazardous areas.
From the experience of previous years, June is the month with the most serious geological hazards because most areas in China enter the peak flood season. The MLR predicts the destruction caused by geological accidents in June will at least equal that of May and 100,000 geological hazard sites are all at a risky stage.
"The spotted sites of hazards have all been put into a monitoring network and won't cause serious accidents. However, most disasters occurred in places outside of the monitoring network, such as remote rural areas, which pose great challenges to our monitoring and warning work," said Yin.
Director of the China Geological Survey Wang Min said related government departments in the future should increase monitoring of villagers' selections of housing to avoid landscape that is prone to collapse and landslides. Wang said the geological hazard appraisal on new construction projects and urban planning should become compulsory. He added the warning and forecasting network will be extended to cover all of China's 1,640 mountainous counties.