Experts advised county seat be moved
Geological experts recommended two years ago that the mudslide-torn seat of Zhouqu county in Gansu , where hundreds of people were killed over the weekend, be moved elsewhere due to safety concerns, mainland media reported.
The town, bordering Sichuan in a valley between two mountains, was listed as a key site prone to landslides by the Ministry of Land and Resources after the massive May 12 earthquake, the 21st Century Business Herald reported.
The geological experts, who had travelled from Beijing, made their recommendation to local authorities after surveying landslide risks across the county. 'We were in favour of relocating [the county seat, informally called Zhouqu],' Du Tao, an official with the Beijing Land Resources Bureau, was quoted as saying.
The town has a long history of geological disasters during the rainy season, with at least three massive mudslides between 1978 and 1992 wreaking havoc and causing many casualties.
But none of them compared to the tragedy this time.
A 300-metre-wide, 5-kilometre-long mass of mud and rocks, or about 7.5 million cubic metres, raced down the mountain and swept through the small town in the early hours on Sunday, engulfing hundreds of low-rise homes and burying downstream villages.
It also choked the Bailong River and formed an unstable lake, threatening the town of up to 50,000 residents, about one-third of whom are ethnic Tibetans.
The geologists said their recommendation was based on the fact that the inherent hazards to Zhouqu town were almost impossible to eliminate. 'Even if it were possible to tackle, it is far too expensive,' the report said.
But local officials argued that the proposed relocation plan, at a cost of more than 80 million yuan (HK$92 million) in preliminary preparations alone, would exceed the impoverished county's ability to pay.
Zhang Sanchao, a deputy director with the county's Development and Reform Commission, said the government had been caught in the dilemma for decades as similar proposals of relocation were also raised in the 1980s.
Professor Fan Xiao, a geologist based in Sichuan, also noted that finding a suitable relocation site for the rapidly expanding town was another challenge. 'It would be difficult to find flat terrain for Zhouqu along the Bailong river, which lies between steep mountains,' he said.
He and Dr Wu Jishan, a geologist in the Chinese Academy of Sciences based in Chengdu, Sichuan, also warned of more mudslides in the coming days.
'The mudslide we've already seen was not necessarily the end of the disaster story in Zhouqu,' Wu told China News Service.
Experts have said a series of human factors had significantly exacerbated the catastrophe, including the dam-building frenzy and the expansion of the town in the narrow valley of less than 1.5 sq km of usable land.
Geologists at a Lanzhou -based research institute under the Chinese Academy of Sciences warned of mounting mudslides risks in a paper published in 1997.
Analysts also said questions remained unanswered regarding some of the key facts about the disaster.
Minister of Land and Resources Xu Shaoshi said on Monday that the mudslides had been triggered by record-breaking rain, citing data saying an upstream town 10 kilometres from the county seat received 97mm of rain on Saturday night.
But according to the media, residents in Zhouqu said they did not see much rainfall before the mudslides.
The official figure of casualties in the tragedy was also challenged by local residents and volunteer rescuers.
Footage by two Hong Kong television stations showed volunteers angrily accusing authorities of substantially under-reporting the death toll and gave their rough estimate of those killed in the tragedy at 3,000 or even higher.
'There was a populated mountain village with 8,000 residents - only about 10 have been rescued so far with the rest all buried,' a volunteer said.