China floods sharpen focus on Xi Jinping’s ‘lack of urgency’ on climate change

Death toll mounts as tens of thousands flee homes following ‘worst rainfall in a millennium’

A man wades through flood water in Zhengzhou, Henan province
Man wades through flood water in Zhengzhou, Henan province
(Image credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Severe floods in central China have claimed the lives of at least 33 people following record-breaking rainfall that has caused devastating damage to cities and infrastructure.

“Tens of thousands of people were being evacuated from flood-hit regions” in Henan province yesterday, as cities were “inundated” with flood waters “and crops destroyed” as the severe weather spread north, The Telegraph reports.

The deadly floods have caused economic losses totalling an estimated 1.22bn yuan ($190m) so far, according to the provincial authorities - a bill that is expected to increase along with the death toll.

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‘Heaviest rainfall in a millennium’

The Henan province authorities have issued the “highest level of weather warning” after “a year’s worth of rain - 640mm - fell in just three days”, The Guardian reports.

Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday that around 200,000 people in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou - home to ten million - had been moved to shelters after being forced to flee their flooded homes. Meanwhile, “rainfall flooded the city’s subway system, collapsed roads, and prompted the suspension of inbound flights”, says The Guardian.

Al Jazeera reports that at least twelve people died after becoming trapped in the Metro, while “five more were injured and more than 500 were rescued”.

A passenger who was stuck in a flooded underground train described the ordeal in a post on social media, writing that “the water reached my chest. I was really scared, but the most terrifying thing was not the water but the increasingly diminishing air supply in the carriage.”

Rescue and medical teams have been hit by a series of power failures in the city, with 600 “critically ill” patients transferred from Zhengzhou’s main hospital amid fears of further outages, reports the BBC.

The storms that have battered Henan province since the weekend follow an unusually heavy rainy season.

Forecasters have speculated that the extreme weather above the region in China’s Yellow River basin is “the heaviest rainfall in a millennium”, The Telegraph reports.

The region is “home to several major river systems that are prone to flooding”, the paper continues, but “climate change has led to extreme weather phenomena”. This week’s storms are “the result of a western Pacific subtropical high, an atmospheric circulation system that carries warm air from the south to the north every summer” .

The BBC adds that scientists “have warned that widespread dam construction has exacerbated climate change problems in China’s flood zone”.

‘Lack of urgency’

As “thousands of firefighters and troops were deployed to the region to help with search and rescue”, President Xi Jinping gave a televised address in which he demanded that “authorities at all levels give priority to ensuring people’s safety, and implement flood prevention and disaster relief measures”, Al Jazeera reports.

“Some reservoirs had their dams burst... causing serious injury, loss of life and property damage,” the Chinese leader said, adding: “The flood control situation is extremely severe.”

As The Times’ diplomatic editor Catherine Philp notes, “catastrophic outbreaks of extreme weather across four continents in the past few days have brought home with devastating clarity the future facing the planet if climate change becomes irreversible”.

And in China, the flooding has also ramped up pressure on Xi over his “lack of urgency” on climate change, she writes. “Public outrage over environmental degradation” has forced the Chinese government “to take pollution seriously and start cleaning up”, but “there is little acknowledgement of what experts say is a clear link between a warming planet and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events”.

Earlier this week, US climate change envoy John Kerry singled out China during a speech at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. “It’s imperative that we and China, and the rest of the world, are pulling in the same direction on this critical effort,” he warned.

Kerry afterwards told The Guardian that “when China has set targets before, it has outperformed them, so that is very hopeful”.

However, Beijing has made clear that “it will not reach its emitting peak until 2030”, says The Times’ Philp, and had also failed to “spell out how it plans to meet its targets”.

So far, “the impacts of global warming are presented by Beijing as a far-off challenge or affecting only other parts of the world”, she adds.

But both research and this flooding have shown that “China is among the countries that could be worst affected if global warming is not kept below 1.5C above industrial levels”.

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