Beware the fresh torrent of chatter about the fierce rainstorm that swamped Beijing on Saturday. The latest news projects anger over the city’s inadequate infrastructure, which even some state-run media suggest were neglected during the city’s rapid push for modernization.
The government cared more about pouring tens of billions of dollars into iconic Olympic venues, new subway lines, shimmering skyscrapers and the world’s second-largest airport than it did effective drainage networks, critics say.
If you read carefully, though, you’ll see that much of Beijing’s problem is common to all major urban centers.
When city streets become rivers and people drown, it is critical to demand and explanation. At least part of the problem in Beijing appears to be poor drainage networks. Official news agencies, including the English language version of the official People’s Daily, cited one investigation that found about half of the drainage pipes in Beijing are clogged with sediment as thick as 10 to 50 percent of their diameter.
But clogged pipes aren’t the only problem. The other major criticism of Beijing is familiar to all urban dwellers: paving a city with concrete and asphalt means the rainwater can’t soak into the ground where it falls. The only thing the water can do is surge down the streets or into storm sewers—if they aren’t clogged.
There is another important consideration when analyzing this latest disaster. By all accounts, the downpour that deluged Beijing this weekend was a freak storm, the worst in 60 years. Flash floods are common in China during the rainy season, several cities have suffered this summer, but Beijing is relatively dry.
“In just one day, it rained as much as it normally rains in six months in Beijing,” said Zhang Junfeng, a senior engineer from the Ministry of Transport, in TODAY. “No drainage system can withstand rains this big.”
Beijing’s skies were clear by Sunday morning, and Jingshan Park and other major destinations were thronged with residents and tourists enjoying a rare sunny day. (I speak from experience.) But hard-hit areas, including the city’s outlying southwestern district of Fangshan, were still suffering.
Indeed, the most compelling criticism I came across referred to areas outside the capital city:
“If so much chaos can be triggered in Beijing, the capital of the nation, problems in urban infrastructure of many other places can only be worse,” said a commentary in Monday’s state-run Global Times newspaper. “In terms of drainage technology, China is decades behind developed societies.”
IMAGE: Buses and cars are half-submerged by floods caused by heavy rain in Beijing, China, July 21, 2012. At least 37 people were killed as the heaviest downpour in six decades hit Beijing. The rainstorms, which started on Saturday afternoon and continued until early Sunday morning, flooded key roads, left cars floating, paralyzed transport, and sent torrents of water into homes and car parks. More than 50,000 people in the capital were evacuated, mostly from outlying mountainous districts, Xinhua reported. The death toll is expected to rise with the media saying that numerous people, including rescue workers, were missing. (Corbis)