Serious threats facing China and India

The New York Times summarizes two new studies of the relationship between urban growth and disaster risk. Beyond the obvious risks to places of extreme poverty — like Myanmar and Bangladesh, which lack shelter sufficiently strong to protect against even tropical storms — the reports note risks to India and China, whose rapid economic advance might lead you to assume are reducing their disaster risks by building stronger structures.

Due to greedy builders who skimped on materials and construction quality, many of China’s new buildings are unsafe, as demonstrated by their collapse during the Sichuan earthquake that killed 5,000 to 10,000 school children, many in brand new schools that collapsed even though they were designed to survive such an earthquake.

Another threat China confronts is the extreme population density along its vulnerable coastline:

Andrew Maskrey, the [United Nations' Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction] report’s lead author, noted… that the breakneck pace of economic growth in China since 1990 had brought tens of millions of people to the eastern seaboard, “an extremely hazard-prone area that is regularly threatened by flooding and cyclones.” “The country has not yet developed the institutional mechanisms to reduce the risk that entails,” he said.

I’ve often wondered (with a mix of grave concern and morbid curiosity) what global warming will do to Shanghai and how quickly. (For answers, Google “shanghai sea level rise”.) In photos of its beautiful skyline, Shanghai’s towering skyscrapers seem almost to sit in the ocean. How can China continue to build its transportation infrastructure around the automobile and power its power grid with coal while building its golden commercial city at the ocean’s edge? It’s truly insane! You might expect such stupidity from a free-marketeering country like America, but a major purported advantage of an authoritarian regime — like the one in Beijing — is its ability to overrule short-sighted market decisions. But I wrote a paper a decade ago urging China to develop its mass transit rather than an automobile culture. Instead, China succumbed to auto mania. Denial is certainly a problem in China:

“As a geologist, I know this (Shanghai being submerged by the sea) will happen one day, just as I know 7,000 years ago there was no Shanghai in the world,” said Zheng Hongbo, head of the School of Ocean and Earth Science from Tongji University. “Scientifically, we accept the fact; but personally we cannot, because we have emotional ties with the city.”

India similarly faces a different self-inflicted disaster:

Mr. Maskrey said, “Some time before 2050, the urban population of India will rise by 500 million people. Mumbai and Calcutta are already very poor about providing land and housing. How will they accommodate tens of millions more? And both cities are in very hazard-prone locations.”

Posted by James on Sunday, May 17, 2009