Torrential Downpour Continues In China's 'Once-In-5,000-Year Rainstorm'

Jul 21, 2021
Originally published on July 22, 2021 12:40 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Torrential rains are pummeling central China. In Henan province, a year's worth of water, some two feet, fell on the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, in just three days this week. And it is still coming down. Flights are suspended. So far, the government says 25 people have died. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch has more.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The water fell hard and fast in Zhengzhou, a city of more than 12 million, and the sewers couldn't keep up.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Shouting in non-English language).

RUWITCH: In this video posted online, a group of men pull a woman to safety as they battle waist-high brown water pouring down a street like a swollen river. According to state media, 12 of the dead drowned when the subway system flooded. State broadcaster CCTV interviewed a man caught underground when water poured in.

(SOUNDBITE OF CCTV BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Through interpreter) People around us were clenching the railings next to the tunnel. There were about a dozen of us crawling together. The water level rose to our shoulders. Several of us hung there, including me and a child. The two of us almost gave up because we were exhausted.

RUWITCH: Deliang Chen is an expert on China's climate at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. He says the city should have reacted more quickly.

DELIANG CHEN: But I was surprised anyway that, this time, the subway was still operating.

RUWITCH: He says several factors set off what some Chinese scientists are calling a once-in-5,000-year event. There's a typhoon approaching the Chinese coast. It's hundreds of miles from Henan but already bringing water from the sea over land. There's also persistent high pressure over the Pacific that's pushing wind from the sea toward China, and the topography of the region has what he calls a channeling effect. And Chen says this Chinese rain storm has something in common with the rain that's been hammering Europe, leaving more than 120 people dead.

CHEN: That water vapor, in general, in the atmosphere is increasing because of global warming.

RUWITCH: And more water in the air means more rainfall; a lot more in some cases.

CHEN: China has a good system in terms of the early warning...

RUWITCH: Chen says China appears better prepared than Europe for this kind of disaster.

CHEN: ...And in terms of also mobilizing resources for evacuating people.

RUWITCH: Still, the kind of rain that Henan is experiencing actually happens more frequently than once every 5,000 years, he says. In 1975, there were similar downpours. The problem is infrastructure in China often isn't built to factor in weather data that's more than three decades old. And in the past three decades, China's urban population has mushroomed, which potentially leaves hundreds of millions of people vulnerable as the effects of climate change worsen.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.