When floods struck the central Henan province earlier this summer, public attention focused on the damage done to the provincial capital Zhengzhou. Images of the city’s waterlogged subway tunnels and submerged cars were heartbreaking reminders of the disaster’s human toll.
At the same time, numerous surrounding villages and towns were also devastated by floods. Country roads were washed away and power, communication, and transport links were cut off. Entire villages were turned into islands in a matter of hours.
Yet the plight of these areas has largely been overlooked. Even those who closely followed news coverage of the flood are unlikely to know that much of the countryside around the city of Xinxiang remained underwater for weeks after the rains hit — spurring disastrous consequences for the area’s farmers and their livestock. Even within Zhengzhou, over 60% of the deaths attributed to the flood were recorded in the city’s rural outlying areas.
The Henan flooding is not the first instance of urban-rural disparity when it comes to the effects of natural disasters. Rural areas have accounted for more than 80% of human casualties and economic losses caused by disasters in China over the last 20 years. In the context of climate change and the accompanying increase in extreme weather events in China and around the world, the countryside’s blatantly inadequate disaster mitigation infrastructure is a problem in need of an immediate solution.
The past 40 years of economic development and urbanization have brought about huge transformations in the Chinese countryside — not all of them positive. Poorly planned infrastructure and environmental problems such as soil erosion and water pollution have become increasingly difficult to ignore. Natural hydrological systems have likewise been altered: Many pits and ponds have been filled in so that more land can be used for farming or building houses, while new concrete roads prevent the soil from absorbing rainwater.
Compounding these problems, farmers’ rising incomes have led to a housing construction boom in rural areas. Most of these dwellings are not built in accordance with strict safety standards or disaster-proofing in mind. While China’s building codes have long accounted for disaster prevention and mitigation, the large number of self-built homes and their scattered distribution across rural areas makes them difficult to enforce. Dedicated flood channels are now blocked by houses, by areas cleared for crop cultivation, or by garbage heaps, which leaves floodwaters with nowhere to go. Standards for flood control and drainage in rural water conservancy projects are also generally low, and ill-equipped to handle heavy storms.
Meanwhile, many young and middle-aged rural dwellers have migrated to the cities for work — a phenomenon that has hollowed out rural areas. Not only do those left behind — mostly the elderly and young children — lack knowledge about disaster prevention and mitigation, but when disasters hit rural areas, there are also fewer people who can help with disaster relief and rescue efforts.
Addressing these problems can help make the countryside more resilient. But when disasters do strike, timely relief and recovery work will still be vital. At present, most of the human, material and financial resources devoted to emergency management systems in China remain concentrated in cities. In difficult-to-reach rural and mountainous regions, everything from transferring victims to getting a timely understanding of the situation takes longer and poses greater challenges for disaster relief workers. Yet, rural emergency management systems are often overlooked by policymakers.
For example, when it comes to early warning systems for disasters, China has adopted a top-down approach in which cities are the focus. Villagers, meanwhile, rarely drill for emergencies such as floods, and as such, are often unable to accurately judge the severity of disasters or take needed action in their immediate aftermath.
As major natural disasters become more frequent, they pose a threat not just to isolated villages, but the prosperity and sustainability of the countryside as a whole. More than 70% of the 832 counties officially categorized as having been lifted out of poverty in recent years are located in areas vulnerable to geological disasters, and over the past decade, almost 6.6% of rural poverty has been attributed to disasters. If these issues are not addressed, a natural disaster could push countless families back into poverty at any time, undoing the progress made by the poverty alleviation campaign.
It is thus vital for China to treat urban and rural areas equally when it comes to disaster prevention. Rural emergency management protocols must be established, disaster prevention infrastructure should be upgraded and maintained, and local governments need to implement new warning systems so that all residents are notified when a disaster is coming.
In areas where smartphones are widely used, apps can be developed to get information to villagers in a timely fashion. Elsewhere, locally tested methods such as loudspeakers, gongs, whistles, and even sending officials door-to-door can help solve the “last mile” problem of delivering warnings to vulnerable populations.
In addition, trainings and drills on disaster prevention, mitigation, and rescue should be organized for villagers to increase their awareness of the necessary procedures in case disaster hits. Particular attention should be paid to trainings that will resonate with the elderly and children.
The data clearly shows that, compared to the urban areas, the countryside is both more vulnerable to disasters and less prepared for their arrival. If China wants to “revitalize” its countryside, it can no longer turn a blind eye to these problems — or to the lives they put at risk.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Residents take a break on an embankment in Fugou Village, Henan province, July 26, 2021. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)