Beijing Floods Unleash Criticism of Chinese Authorities

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter. This is The World. Beijingers today began drying out after the weekends deluge. The rain and floods in the Chinese capital are said to be the worst in more than 60 years. One government official is quoted as saying as much rain fell in one day in Beijing as normally falls in six months. It left at least 37 people dead and displaced tens of thousands. The World's China correspondent, Mary Kay Magistad, was home in Beijing over the weekend.

Mary Kay Magistad: It was just pelting rain for hour after hour. I actually had a reporting trip that I had to make to the outskirts of the city. Traffic was crawling. We could hardly see as we were driving. We saw cars that were stranded by the side of the road in water basically almost up to the door. When I got back to my home in Beijing I was walking on the streets with water up to my ankles and sometimes higher. Even on Sunday night we went out the southwest end of town which got by far the most rain. It got 18 inches of rain on Saturday and traffic then was crawling and there was still some water on the roads. So it was really a mess and almost immediately Chinese Twitter which is called [?? 00:01:15] in China, was full of comments about how could this possible happen in our capital city. Why can't we get something as simple as this right.

Schachter: And the complaints were based on what? I mean it was an immense amount of rain in a very short period of time.

Magistad: It was an immense amount of rain in a very short period of time but here are some of the problems. The drainage networks in Beijing are not built to be able to absorb heavy rainfalls. The networks that are there have a lot of sediment blocking the pipes so Beijing is a city that has doubled in population int he course of 10-15 years. There are all kinds of new buildings and it appears that one area that's been neglected a little bit is thinking about as we do all of this are we doing enough to compensate to allow water to be absorbed when there is a heavy rainstorm.

Schachter: It is sort of shocking because we hear so much about Chinese investment in infrastructure. This is probably a silly question but did they forget to retrofit the sewer system?

Magistad: I think the calculation was that there just wouldn't be rains that were quite this heavy. But I've got to say I've lived in Beijing for more than a decade and I've experienced a number of times where the roads are flooded up to your knees or up to your shins so this is a chronic problem in Beijing. But the central government interestingly did have a meeting just in May to discuss the problem of urban flooding including in Beijing and new regulations were set to be put into place next year. I would guess at this point that they might be speeding up the process and trying to do something sooner than that.

Schachter: Now we're talking about what happened in Beijing but the rains affected lots of people elsewhere as well. One of the complaints was that weather authorities didn't notify people soon enough that this was coming.

Magistad: Well, I certainly knew that there was a forecast for thunderstorms. I think its sometimes hard to know how heavy rain is going to be on any given day with any given storm. I mean there have been times in years past where the government was praying for rain. It even seeded the clouds to try to get rain because Beijing is situation in the norther plain of China which is chronically dry, where the water table is dropping, and rain would be forecast and the clouds would just move over Beijing and you wouldn't get rain at all. So this time far more ran fell than anyone expected. So it's not like a hurricane coming and hitting the coast. You can't say we know with dead certainty that this is going to hit and it's at this level of intensity. They knew that there was going to be a storm. They had no idea it was going to be like this.

Schachter: The World's Mary Kay Magistad. Thank you so much. Stay dry.

Magistad: Thanks, Aaron.