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China: Zhouqu landslide, a man made disaster

August 11, 2010

Oiwan Lam
Global Voices
August 9, 2010

On August 8, a landslide happened in Zhouqu in
Gansu province. According to official Xinhua
news, the disaster has so far taken away 127
people's lives and 1,294 people reported missing.

Since there is very limited information from
official media outlets, Woeser's coordinated a
collaborative investigation via Twitter soon
after the disaster happened. Twitterers made
phone calls, dug out past news report and data
and they found out that the landslide is a result
of 1. the construction of hydro-electric power
plants; 2. mining; 3. deforestation. In a nutshell, it is a man-made disaster.

Hydroelectric projects and gold rush

Apart from heavy rainfall, the main reason for
the landslide is caused by the construction of a
number of hydroelectric power plants.

The Tibetan autonomous region in Gansu Zhou Qu
county is consisted of 20 towns with a 130
thousand population. In recent years, there are
47 hydroelectric power plant construction
projects in the region and so far 15
hydroelectric power plants have been constructed,
including Bacang hydroelectric power plant, Lijie
hydroelectric power plant. 14 more are under
construction, including Fujiaai, Lianhekou.
Sources from local Tibetan said that the
landslide is related with the numerous
construction project, which has devastated the
ecosystem of the region. They urge for more concern on the matter.

A Gansu government report in 2009 has more detailed data:

Between 2003-2007, there were 53 hydroelectric
power plants construction contract signed. 41 of
the project has been finished or under
construction. 12 of them will begin soon. All
these project together will be able to supply 80%
electricity in the county. The total construction
area of the 41 projects reached 322.83 Square
Hektometer. The amount of disposed material
reached 3.8348 million cubic meters. Water and
soil erosion reached 749 thousand tons.

Apart from construction projects, the land has
been exploited by mining activities. @dographer points out:

There are mining activities in Zhouqu for many
years. All the trees in the hillsides had been
logged and you could see dark mud exposed in the
air. The river has been polluted with gold rush
and it is all muddy. The area has been ruined for
long. The location of the town is down hill at
the village. It is surrounded by cliffs and
dangerous slope. Some buildings are constructed
in the slopes. I visited the site many years ago,
it is not suitable for human habitation.
Actually, the town was also hit in the 512 earthquake in 2008.

@bimawen posted a google map showing the
landscape of the Zhouqu town and pointed out that
the disaster is also a result of lack of public monitor:

What happened to Zhouqu is a natural disaster or
man-made disaster? Take a look at the map:
according to common sense, landslide would
resulted in barrier lake / dam. However, it takes
time for the water to break the dam. Where were
the media during that period of time? where was
SARFT? where were all the phone lines and
wireless communication? Where were all the
micro-bloggers? The blocking of information flow
had resulted in such kind of disaster!

Alerts from experts and media reports

Actually, we could find many alerts done by
experts and media workers via the internet.
Twitterers human flesh searched the Internet and
found several reports and researches having
warned against the soil erosion problem of the
Bailong river in Zhouqu county. One of the
reports on water resource pointed out:

The situation of water loss and soil erosion
problem in Zhouqu county is very serious. The
natural environment and ecology in Bailong river
area is devastating and the situation induces
flood, landslide, mudslide and all kinds of
natural disaster. It threatens the security of local residents.

A research on landslide problem in Bailong river
district conducted by Lanzhou University in 2006 also pointed out:

The hills have become highly unstable and easily
subject to natural disaster of landslides and
mudslides, the situation is the result of
deforestation, exploitative mining activities,
construction of hydroelectric power plants and other development activities.

A news report back in 2008 pointed out that the
Zhouqu county was once a human paradise surrounded by rivers and forests:

Back in the 50s till the 80s, Zhouqu is like the
Jiang nan (most prosperous area in southern
China) in Gansu, surrounded by forests. However,
as a result of exploitative logging activities,
the mountain slopes have been exposed to erosion
and landslides occurred frequently in rainy season.

@try2feel found another news report in 2008
describing the landslide problem in Zhouqu:

The 2008 report: There are more than 60
landslides in Zhouqu, 13 of them were serious
cases that threaten the safety of local
residents. The landslide problem has to be
tackled in earthquake reconstruction work.

History of the man-made eco-disaster

The history of logging activities dated back to
1958, the year of Great Leap Forward:

Zhouqu's natural resource has been exploited
since 1958, the Great Leap Forward period.
According to public data of the Zhouqu's ministry
of forestry, from 1952-1990 the logging areas was
consisted of 1.8975 million mu. The virgin forest
had been turned into artificial secondary forest.
In addition, illegal logging activities has
result into an annual loss of 100 thousand square
meter forest land, the ecology of the maintain slopes are ruined totally.
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