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    The Lake That Took Back the Land

    Submerged housing compound in flood-stricken Wuhan tells story of city planning failures.

    Four days after the rainstorm, Wu Gaozhi and his son went back to Nanhu Elegant Garden to see if their two cars, parked in the ground-floor garage, could be moved.

    The walled residential compound lies in the southeast of Wuhan, a city in China’s central Hubei province that has for days been battered — and submerged — by torrential rains.

    The once-clean and well-kept roads were one big mess. Empty candy wrappers and an assortment of plastic bottles floated by in the green, algal water. The whole place was deserted, except for the buzzing sound of mosquitos. As father and son waded into the garage’s waist-deep water, a foul smell filled their nostrils — the place stank like a garbage dump. On one of the cars, the stain of where the water level had been at its highest point could still be seen.


    The rainstorm that would submerge large parts of Wuhan, central China’s largest city, started on the evening of July 5. When Wu woke up the next day, authorities had issued a red rainstorm alert, the highest possible. Nanhu Elegant Garden had already become nearly indistinguishable from the lake next to it. Some parts were under more than 1.5 meters of water.

    Nanhu Elegant Garden was one of the most waterlogged areas in Wuhan. It lies next to South Lake, at virtually the same elevation as the usual water level. Behind it the land rises, encouraging the high water to find its way into the compound.

    Days after the rain, the compound’s residents are still waiting to return. The water level has only lowered some 20 centimeters. Water and electricity have been cut. Some residents come back to pick up their clothes, and then leave.

    Moving In

    In the 1980s, Wu moved to Wuhan from his hometown in neighboring Jingzhou. He found a house near the South Lake Airport and opened a small business.

    The airport was closed in 1995, leaving behind more than 250 hectares of unused space. The big runway became the area’s main thoroughfare. And the rest was to become apartment blocks, Walmarts, university campuses, and shopping malls.

    Before the airport was closed, large parts of the area near the lake consisted of marshes and wetlands. In summer, Wu often went fishing. His favorite spot has now become the South Lake Happiness Bay Water Park, while next-door Nanhu Elegant Garden used to be a wetland full of lotus flowers.

    Wu likes the water. He clearly remembers the slogan of the Nanhu Elegant Garden ad in the newspaper: “Nanhu Elegant Garden will be a park on the water.” He took out his life savings, half a million yuan (about $75,000), and bought a house.

    He knew his new home would be built on artificial land, reclaimed from the lake by truck after truck of sand and soil. Over time, the lotus flowers were replaced by a forest of apartment blocks: Nanhu Elegant Garden.

    Wuhan is a city of water. The Yangtze and Han rivers converge at the city’s heart, dividing it into three parts. Lakes large and small have earned it the nickname “City of Lakes,” and countless streams and creeks run between them.

    South Lake is the city’s second-largest lake. A 10-centimeter rise in the water level takes 24 hours to flow out of the lake, according to official estimates. During the first week of July, more than 70 centimeters of rain fell in the area.

    The rainstorm brought back Wu’s beloved lake, but it also submerged his treasured cars, and pretty much the whole neighborhood. Restaurants, hotels, and shops have closed. The only businesses with clientele are vehicle repair shops.

    Even the area’s big supermarket has closed. Without power, all the fresh food has gone bad. Its cashiers took their wares to the street, selling bottled water to passersby.

    Moving Out

    When another resident surnamed Yin, who hails from Guangdong in southern China, bought a house in Nanhu Elegant Garden, he didn’t know that the compound was once part of the lake.

    What sold Yin on the area was convenience: There were plans for Wuhan’s second ring road to be built nearby. And the South Lake Happiness Bay Water Park was a great place for his parents to stroll and relax. The local government offices were located on the other side of the compound, which gave him a feeling of safety.

    Yin’s expectations came only partially true — when the second ring road opened for traffic a few years later, the section nearby was often backed-up with traffic.

    Many of his family’s household appliances didn’t survive the deluge of rainwater, but Yin said he is more worried the days-long floods will damage the building’s foundation.

    Wuhan’s party secretary, Ruan Chengfa, said in a speech in March that the development of the area around the South Lake taught the city a lesson. It followed a model of “develop first, manage later,” he said. After an area is built up and the properties have been sold, problems such as how to provide education and infrastructure, and how to keep the environment clean, are left unaddressed. Ruan said the government needed to plan ahead better.

    Wu’s previous optimism about living in Nanhu Elegant Garden has not been entirely erased by the flood, even though his cars are full of water and he can’t return to his house for now. Yin, on the other hand, said he has begun to think about moving away from South Lake.

    (Header image: A car partially submerged in water in the Nanhu Elegant Garden residental community, Wuhan, Hubei province, July 10, 2016. Han Meng/Sixth Tone)