Historic flood in Henan invites reckoning

Extreme rainfall has hit large parts of the central province of Henan since last Saturday, causing devastating floods. Three days of precipitation, totalling 617.1mm,­­­ in the provincial capital Zhengzhou amounted to nearly a third of the city’s annual average. This has caused rivers to burst their bank and factories to explode, necessitating mass evacuation at short notice.

By Thursday morning, the provincial government announced that among the 3 million affected, 33 people had died and eight were missing. Twelve people died in a subway train stranded in water. The local authority called it a “5000-year rain”.

Not even meteorologists had expected rainfall of such intensity to hit a city in central China, a region far drier than the south. The local authorities had forecast heavy rainstorms, but failed to predict their true intensity and locations. 

The chief forecaster at the National Meteorological Centre reflected on Wednesday that there are still big gaps in forecasting extreme weather events. Others doubt if the sheer intensity of such rainfall is something cities can withstand, even with accurate forecasts. In response to questioning by netizens regarding Zhengzhou’s recent completion of a “sponge city” project to address urban flooding, at a cost of 53.4 billion yuan (US$8.2 billion), a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences called the rain “an oversized natural disaster against the background of global change [a concept that includes climate change], and this is not something a “sponge city” project can defend against.”

One expert in flood prevention and mitigation pointed out that although there is already a warning system for extreme weather events in place, there is still a lack of emergency response mechanisms to work in tandem with it. Others lamented the inadequate attention given to “climate adaptation” even as the country is actively working on tackling climate change with its carbon neutrality pledge and actions.

Read China Dialogue’s discussion of the missing climate angle in Chinese extreme weather reporting.