In July 2021, a devastating flood swept through the central Chinese province of Henan, killing hundreds of people. Now, a government report has concluded that many of those deaths could have been prevented.
The report by a task force under China’s Cabinet, released Friday, found that failures across multiple levels of local government were the main cause of the high death toll during the disaster. The floods killed 398 people in Henan and caused over 120 billion yuan ($18.9 billion) in direct economic losses.
Officials in the provincial capital Zhengzhou — where the vast majority of the deaths occurred — were caught off-guard by the torrential rain that lashed the city in late July, according to the report. On July 20, a local meteorological station recorded 624.1 millimeters of rainfall — almost as much as the city typically receives in a year.
The city hadn’t taken precautions for a downpour of that magnitude, as senior municipal officials assumed the city would never face such a disaster, according to the investigators. At the time, Zhengzhou was still striving to reach a target of enabling its drainage system to absorb 199 millimeters of rainfall a day by 2030.
City officials ignored a series of early warnings issued by Zhengzhou’s meteorological bureau and were slow to arrange an emergency response as the floods began to overwhelm the city’s defenses, the report found. On July 20, many local residents went to work as normal, unaware of the danger they were facing.
The delayed response proved fatal, as many of the deaths in downtown Zhengzhou and the surrounding towns occurred during the afternoon and early evening of July 20, according to the report.
As the scale of the tragedy became apparent, officials at both the municipal and county levels in Zhengzhou repeatedly underreported the number of deaths, investigators said. This continued until their superiors in China’s provincial and central authorities pushed “several times” for them to be more transparent.
A view of floodwaters at the entrance of Jingguang North Road Tunnel, Zhengzhou, Henan province, July 23, 2021. IC
The total death toll in Zhengzhou and the four county-level cities it administers now stands at 380. Over a week after the disaster, however, the local government had only reported 97 fatalities to higher authorities.
Instead of proactively counting the number of casualties, the Zhengzhou government “deliberately” hindered the reporting of missing people, setting up barriers in the communications process to keep the tally lower, the report said. Officials were even guilty of “concealing” key information, it added.
The investigators also criticized city officials in Zhengzhou for failing to use government funds designed to protect against flooding efficiently. The city had invested over 19 billion yuan into a “sponge city” plan, but over half the money was spent on landscaping and planting vegetation instead of improving local drainage systems and pumps.
Many public facilities and underground tunnels, meanwhile, weren’t prepared to cope with flooding. Large numbers of flood spillways had become obstructed and hadn’t been fixed, the report said. The widespread blockages nearly caused the collapse of a major reservoir in Zhengzhou, it added.
Xu Liyi, party secretary of Zhengzhou and a standing member of the Henan provincial party committee, is the most senior official held responsible for the failures during Henan’s flood response. The Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, China’s top anti-graft body, said Xu had been given a severe warning and demoted.
A total of 89 civil servants in Zhengzhou and the towns it administers were demoted or dismissed for their poor performance during the floods, according to the Xinhua News Agency. This included the city’s former mayor and vice-mayor.
The 44-page report also shared important details on the causes of some of the most-profile disasters that occurred during the floods. Here are some key findings:
Line 5 subway: 14 deaths
More than 400 commuters were trapped inside a subway train when flash floods hit Zhengzhou on July 20. With rescue workers slow to arrive, they watched helplessly as water rapidly filled the carriages and they started to run out of oxygen.
Fourteen people eventually died in the flooded subway tunnel. Families who lost loved ones have been pleading the authorities for answers on how the tragedy occurred.
According to the report, water began gushing into the carriages after temporary fences at a rail yard collapsed. This rail yard was located over three kilometers from the nearest station to the trapped subway train.
Zhengzhou Metro Group, which operates the city’s subway system, acted slowly in responding to the emergency, the investigators said. The “chaotic” response caused “serious delays” to the rescue of the passengers.
An error by the subway train driver — who reversed further down the tunnel — worsened the situation of the trapped passengers, according to the report. The rail yard, meanwhile, had been built in a low-lying area 30 meters away from the original location approved by local authorities and had poorly constructed fences. This reduced the rail yard’s ability to withstand the floods, according to the report.
The principal designer of the rail yard at Zhengzhou Metro Group was among eight people arrested by the Henan provincial public security authorities for potential crimes related to the disaster.
Jingguang North Road tunnel: six deaths
Six people drowned in the Jingguang North Road expressway tunnel on July 20, including two middle school students who rode into the tunnel on an electric bicycle. A total of 247 cars were submerged.
According to the report, officials failed to shut down the tunnel quickly enough, allowing many motorists to drive into the underground tunnel without realizing the danger they were in. The tunnel wasn’t closed until 4.16 p.m., by which time floodwater was already surging into the tunnel. By 5.30 p.m., the entire tunnel was mostly underwater.
Traffic congestion near the tunnel exit made it difficult for people to escape, the report found. Police and local transportation bureau staff did not act quickly enough to evacuate the cars, it added.
Wangzongdian Village: 23 deaths
Another disaster highlighted in the report was the 23 deaths that occurred in Wangzongdian Village, which is administered by the city of Xingyang. Investigators said the causes of the tragedy were the obstructed floodways in the village and the slack emergency response by local authorities.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: An aerial view of cars piled near the entrance to a flooded tunnel in Zhengzhou, Henan province, July 22, 2021. Noel Celis/AFP via People Visual)