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Climate change threatens China with yet another deadly flood season

More than 27 000 residents from 22 counties in the southern province of Guangxi were affected by heavy rains last week and more than 2 300 hectares of crops were damaged.
Image: Tang Guangdong/VCG/Getty Images

As China’s rainy season starts, National Climate Center forecasts show that flooding in the north and south of the country could be as bad as last summer when torrential rain killed hundreds. Cities that house millions of people have little time to prepare.

More than 27 000 residents from 22 counties in the southern province of Guangxi were affected by heavy rains last week and more than 2 300 hectares of crops were damaged, causing 104 million yuan ($15.4 million) in losses. In Guangdong, another southern province, many cities shut down kindergartens, primary and secondary schools due to the downpours.

Floods are a regular occurrence in China during the summer, especially in the low-lying areas along the Yangtze River and its tributaries. But the storms have intensified as global warming brings more extreme weather. Scientists have found evidence that the atmosphere can hold 7% more moisture for every degree Celsius of Earth’s warming.

The flooding this year is set to be “relatively worse” and “more extreme” compared with the historical average, according to China’s National Climate Center. Cities must stay alert and recognize the increasing danger from climate-change fueled extreme weather events, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and National Development and Reform Commission said in a separate report.

Cities all over the world are struggling to protect their residents and infrastructure from increasingly unpredictable and dangerous weather. South Asia is in the midst of a record-breaking heat wave that’s left millions of people vulnerable. In the US, high temperatures in Texas are straining the electric grid and wildfires are again tearing through Southern California.

A 2021 report by the nonprofit CDP that analyzed more than 800 cities showed 43% of them don’t have a plan to deal with more extreme weather. That was evident in China last year, when flooding in the central Henan province killed 398 people. At least 12 of them were trapped in an underground metro station in the city of Zhengzhou as water gushed into the tunnels.

The tragedy prompted unprecedented attention on Chinese social media, with users complaining about how badly Chinese cities — even the most developed ones — have been at adapting to a changing climate and greater frequency of extreme weather events. In Zhengzhou, for example, the meteorological department issued alerts about the floods, but other government departments didn’t follow through with enough action.

China suffered the world’s second-worst losses from floods in 2021 at about $25 billion, behind Europe’s $41.8 billion of damage from extreme rainstorms that hit countries including Germany, according to a Swiss Re Institute report. At this year’s annual parliamentary meeting in March, Chinese lawmakers said cities need to increase their resilience to catastrophic events by improving weather monitoring and alert systems, and upgrade infrastructure to defend against flooding.

Ahead of this year’s flood season, the housing ministry and NDRC asked cities to make sure departments within the government collaborate to build emergency management systems for urban flood control, and asked the media to help raise public awareness of disaster prevention.

“There will be more extreme weather events and global temperatures will keep rising,” said Cai Wenjia, associate professor at Tsinghua University’s Department of Earth System Science. “The Chinese public and governments at all levels don’t have sufficient understanding or preparation for climate adaptation, and have not paid enough attention to it.”

© 2022 Bloomberg

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