China’s summer of climate destruction

Dried out rice crops in Heilongjiang Province, China (August 2023)
Image caption,Swathes of the Wuchang rice crop in north China have been wiped out

By Stephen McDonell

China correspondent

China’s summer this year has seen both extreme heat and devastating floods.

And the flooding this time around has struck areas where such weather has been unheard of, with scientists – blaming climate change – warning that the worst is yet to come.

“I’ve never seen a flood here in my whole life,” says 38-year-old Zhang Junhua, standing next to a vast patch of rice, now completely useless. “We just didn’t expect it.”

His family and friends are safe, he says, because they were given plenty of warning to get to higher ground, but everyone in his village now has some tough months ahead.

What’s more, the devastation in north-east China’s Heilongjiang Province has had a major impact on food supplies for the whole country.

Female farmer stands in front of rice field

BBC/Joyce Liu

The fields where we planted our crops were all submerged… the losses are incalculableZhao Lijuan

This month, 40% of the area’s famous Wuchang rice crop has been wiped out, visibly flattened by the volume and speed of the water. Places which should appear lush and green are today brown and dead.

“The fields where we planted our crops were all submerged. We can’t plant again this year,” says another farmer, Zhao Lijuan, as she smiles and tries to be philosophical about the impact on her community.

“The losses are incalculable. We have tens of thousands of acres of rice fields here,” the 56-year-old says, adding: “When I saw the water come here, I cried. It laid waste to everything and I am scared the typhoons will be back.”

At least 81 people have been killed in the recent floods, including some trying to rescue others.

But the economic pain has been much wider, in a country already struggling to recover following three years of strict coronavirus control measures.

And, if the government wants to measure the immediate cost of not addressing climate change urgently, it need look no further than its own statistics.

In a little over a decade, the number of floods being recorded in the country has increased tenfold.

In the summer of 2011, there were six to eight monthly floods listed in China. Last year, more than 130 were recorded in July and 82 in August.

Three people walk down a flooded street in Zhuozhou
Image caption,The number of floods being recorded across China is surging

According to Dr Zhao Li from Greenpeace East Asia, the increase in flood numbers can be partially explained by China developing better systems to monitor and record flood data.

But she says global warming is still clearly a major contributing factor.

“Warmer temperatures can enhance evaporation rates, resulting in more moisture in the atmosphere,” she says. “This increased moisture content can lead to more intense rainfall and more frequent and severe storms, including hurricanes and cyclones.”

A Greenpeace study from two years ago, using UN climate panel mapping, found that more heatwaves and extreme rainfall would effectively extend summer by one month during this century in the provinces around Beijing and Shanghai. In the Pearl River delta, it would be by more than 40 days.

The Chinese government’s own Meteorological Administration officials have reported that extreme high temperatures and extreme precipitation have definitely increased since the mid-1990s.

However, in the face of potential catastrophes, Dr Zhao Li from Greenpeace warns that human beings are not ready for what is just around the corner.

“We are not prepared for extreme weather events. Recent experiences from the floods underline that,” Dr Zhao says.

“It’s an immense and perhaps unrealistic task to upgrade all infrastructure to be able to face a flood that is the worst in hundreds of years. However, climate change is bringing those once-a-century events into rotation with a frequency that shows we will soon have to control a disaster again.”

Officials in China tried to ease the impact of recent floods by using a system of dams of waterways to change their direction.

Man cleans out shop in Zhuozhou
Image caption,People in Zhuozhou have seen their businesses damaged by floodwaters

The problem is that the water has to go somewhere, and it was Zhuozhou in Hebei Province which took the hit.

These are tough choices but, in the end, it becomes a government decision over who must suffer for the greater good.

In Zhuozhou, for many, a bright future is still a long way away.

“It’ll take me eight to 10 years to recover from these losses,” says Mr Zhang, who has two small businesses there. “The government has not said whether it will compensate us. I run two shops but what I can I do?”

A few weeks ago, cars were still slowly pushing through lingering floodwaters and mush in the main street. On either side of the road were mud-caked vehicles, with windscreens smashed in as they were submerged when the water suddenly rose with such force.

A brown line revealed what was the high-water mark, with all manner of first-floor items swallowed up and spat out into the street as the flood spread the carnage.

“We suffered big losses: trucks and other vehicles; our goods; furniture; everything we own was wrecked,” says Mrs Han, who operates a warehouse for deliveries with her husband.

He indicates how even the goods stored high on racks well above three metres were ruined.

Then his wife opens the door to their nearby home – a thick layer of mud cakes everything.

“Every day we keep trying to clear more mud out,” she says. “I can’t describe how I felt when I saw this. It’s as if our life’s work is over.”

Woman sits surrounded by flood debris
Image caption,The clean-up in Zhuozhou continues

Climate scientists are the first to acknowledge that you can’t view any extreme weather experience in isolation.

In June, northern China was baking, with week after week of temperatures soaring above 40C (104F), and then a month’s worth of rain bucketed down in 24 hours.

“These weather events do happen without climate change,” says Prof Cascade Tuholske. “The mechanisms driving individual events, or compound events like heatwaves and floods impacting China this summer are complex, but climate change is making extreme events more common and more intense.”

The professor, a geographer at Montana State University, adds that “climate change-driven weather extremes are a huge problem for China because of its dense population and as a major global economy”.

He also says that “every tonne of CO2 that remains in the ground, means fewer people in China will be harmed in the future”.

Whether because of droughts or sudden floods, extreme weather is again drawing attention to the impact of climate change on China, with serious questions being asked about whether or not the measures in place to fight it are currently ambitious enough to rein in the destructive force of these potentially catastrophic events.

But this is a global challenge that cannot be fixed in any one country alone.

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