China's Giant Landslide: Natural or Man-Made Disaster?

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When soaking rains wash through a region, the land can do horrible things. Epic flooding, sinkholes, landslides — these disasters are thought of as unstoppable forces of nature, deadly events that we are powerless to prevent.

So it is in China's Gansu province, where the death toll from worst landslide to strike the country in sixty years climbs sickeningly each day — two days after the slide, over 702 people are dead and another 1,042 said to be missing, their chances of survival are dwindling fast.

Chinese authorities have called this a "rain-triggered" slide, which indeed it is, but according to a report in The Guardian:

Officials have warned for years that heavy tree-felling and rapid hydro-development were making the mountain area around Zhouqu more vulnerable to landslips, government reports show. One government report last year called the Bailong River a "high-occurrence disaster zone for landslides".

So at the very least, there was some idea of the risk, and human activity may well have exacerbated it.

It sounds scandalous, but the closer one looks at any disaster, the less it usually looks like an unforeseeable "Act of God" and more like something tragically preventable. Take the Haiti earthquake or Hurricane Katrina, for example.

Still, it's worth noting that the scene of the slide, Zhouqu county (pronounced "Joe-chu"), is in southern Gansu, which was strongly shaken by the devastating magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008 in neighboring Sichuan province. As landslide expert David Petley noted on his blog, the quake almost assuredly elevated landslide risk through much of central China. And more similar, giant slides may be on the way:

…to be fair to the government, the range of landslide problems in the aftermath of the 2008 earthquake is so serious that prioritizing and finding the resources to mitigate appropriately is impossible. Expect more landslide disasters in central China in the coming years.

Image: AP