News / Asia

China's Heavy Rains Blamed on Unusual Climate Patterns

Helicopters were crucial in evacuating more than 250,000 people in China's northeastern Liaoning province days ago. Torrential rains battered the area and led to severe flooding along the border with North Korea. Weather experts and Chinese officials attribute the heavier than usual rainfall to unusual climate patterns and global warming.

This was the latest of what has become a summer of natural disasters for China. Official media call it the country's worst flooding in a decade, leaving more than 1,500 dead and hundreds of thousands of others displaced and experts say unusual weather patterns are to blame.

Earlier in August, heavy rains in northwestern Gansu province triggered landslides that killed more than 1,400 people and left more than 300 others missing. Rain caused smaller mudslides in southwestern China, including in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Some of the affected areas in Sichuan were previously damaged by a massive earthquake in 2008.  

Devastating floods also hurt farm production. Floods wiped out many rice paddies in central Hunan province, one of China's top rice-growing regions, and damaged crops in northeastern Jilin province, China's main grain-growing region.

Dean of Hong Kong City University's School of Energy and Environment Johnny Chan said this much rain is just not normal.

"But it is in a way expected because this is a year following an El Nino," said Chan.

El Nino describes a climate pattern in which warmer surface temperatures of the water in the Pacific Ocean cause unusual weather around the world. The El Nino pattern showed up in 2009.

Besides this phenomenon, Chan points to global warming, which he also blames for causing more frequent heavy rains. And, he said, heavy deforestation exacerbates the flooding problem in China.

"What happens is that if you have very heavy deforestation, the topsoil is soft, and when it rains there are not enough trees to hold the topsoil,” he said.  “The topsoil is gone whenever it rains, so it is washed into the rivers, which makes the banks rise, and the river shallow. And as a result, when there is heavy rain, you will be likely to get flooding because the amount of water that the river can hold becomes smaller.”

Whatever the cause, the Chinese government has mounted a massive effort to help flood victims. Many people have expressed gratitude for the rescue and recovery efforts.

Those saved include 23-year-old Liu Li, who was heavily pregnant and stranded at her home in Liaoning. Liu says she was afraid before the rescuers arrived, and is very thankful for their help. She gave birth to a baby girl after being delivered safely to a hospital.

The tragedy in Gansu brought Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to the worst-hit areas, to show the government's concern for the landslide victims. Mr. Wen urged the country to come together and work hard to recover from the disaster. He said the country can move forward only if the Communist party, the government, the army and the people are united.

China's Ministry of Land and Resources blames "extreme weather" for this year's tenfold increase in geological disasters, such as landslides. August and September are the main flooding months, according to ministry officials, and there is still a possibility of more heavy rains.

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