China’s breathtaking economic growth created cities ill-equipped to face extreme weather. Last week’s dramatic floods showed that much will have to change. From a report: China’s breakneck growth over the last four decades erected soaring cities where there had been hamlets and farmland. The cities lured factories, and the factories lured workers. The boom lifted hundreds of millions of people out of the poverty and rural hardship they once faced. Now those cities face the daunting new challenge of adapting to extreme weather caused by climate change, a possibility that few gave much thought to when the country began its extraordinary economic transformation. China’s pell-mell, brisk urbanization has in some ways made the challenge harder to face.
No one weather event can be immediately linked to climate change, but the storm that flooded Zhengzhou and other cities in central China last week, killing at least 69 as of Monday, reflects a global trend of extreme weather that has seen deadly flooding recently in Germany and Belgium, and severe heat and wildfires in Siberia. The flooding in China, which engulfed subway lines, washed away roads and cut off villages, also highlights the environmental vulnerabilities that accompanied the country’s economic boom and could yet undermine it. China has always had floods, but as Kong Feng, then a public policy professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in 2019, the flooding of cities across China in recent years is “a general manifestation of urban problems” in the country.
The vast expansion of roads, subways and railways in cities that swelled almost overnight meant there were fewer places where rain could safely be absorbed — disrupting what scientists call the natural hydrological cycle. Faith Chan, a professor of geology with the University of Nottingham in Ningbo in eastern China, said the country’s cities — and there are 93 with populations of more than a million — modernized at a time when Chinese leaders made climate resiliency less of a priority than economic growth. “If they had a chance to build a city again, or to plan one, I think they would agree to make it more balanced,” said Mr. Chan, who is also a visiting fellow at the Water@Leeds Research Institute of the University of Leeds.