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Reviews | Devastating torrential rains in China show there is no room for complacency in the face of climate risks

Just days before the holiday began, five people were killed and 33 others injured after an intense tornado struck a megacity. Canton and damaged more than 100 factories.

02:17

Dozens killed in highway collapse in China’s rain-hit Guangdong province

Dozens killed in highway collapse in China’s rain-hit Guangdong province

Guangdong was hit by multiple natural disasters last month – floods, torrential rains and hailstorms – and tens of thousands of people were evacuated due to the flooding.

China has been more vigilant about weather warnings since the summer of 2021, when catastrophic flooding killed hundreds of people in the central province of Henan.

In January of the following year, Beijing punished nearly 100 civil servants and business leaders for failing to fulfill their duties during the Henan floods.

Extreme weather risks were even higher last year and earlier this year due to El Niñothe climatic phenomenon marked by changes in sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean.
Last summer, China was hit by record heat and devastating floods. In August, more than a million people were forced to leave their homes and dozens were killed by the remnants of a typhoon in the Chinese province of Hebei, in the north of the country. The destruction was unexpected because typhoons generally weaken after making landfall.

In China, natural disasters and accidents are often seen as a threat to social stability, as large numbers of casualties and high discontent could trigger protests, which Beijing sees as a threat to its governance.

After the Guangdong expressway collapsed, plunging 23 vehicles, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered local authorities to step up rescue efforts.

He also ordered them to ensure social stability.

Complaints from relatives of victims of accidents and natural disasters are rarely heard in Chinese media. Over the past two decades, local governments have generally moved quickly to contact bereaved families to prevent them from protesting, petitioning or complaining to the media.

Local officials are usually held responsible if they fail to take effective precautions against extreme weather conditions.

In the case of Guangdong, authorities were quick to issue warnings ahead of recent rainstorms. The road collapse also highlighted the importance of identifying hazards such as landslides, blocked drainages and weakening infrastructure after prolonged rains.

Buildings and streets are submerged after heavy rain caused flooding in Qingyuan city, Guangdong province, April 22. Photo: AFP

Neighboring Hong Kong has been spared the worst over the past week, with minimal damage despite torrential rain and flooding.

There is, however, no room for complacency. Last year, Hong Kong authorities initially considered themselves lucky that the city was spared serious damage and losses when it was hit by Typhoon Haikui.

But the long and unexpected rainstorm that followed wreaked havoc in a city proud of its weather warning system and modern infrastructure, leaving four people dead and dozens injured.

Metrological authorities in mainland China have warned of the risks of extreme weather conditions due to the El Niño effect as early as 2022. El Nino was expected to weaken in April, but scientists have warned its effects could linger into May. Scientists have also warned of the risks of another weather phenomenon, La Nina, during the second half of this year.

Scientists are calling for better weather forecasts.

A paper by researchers from Nanjing, Beijing and South Korea, published in the peer-reviewed journal Weather and Climate Extremes in March last year, said the 2021 floods in Henan showed that Even advanced technology had limited success in predicting such extreme events one to two weeks in advance, and adjustments were necessary to account for the complexity of new weather and climate models.