The once-in-a-lifetime downpour that deluged Beijing at the weekend was bound to be compared with Typhoon Vicente, the worst storm to hit Hong Kong in 13 years. The two cities are both modern, yet while here there were only injuries, felled trees and broken windows, in the capital dozens of residents were killed and damage amounted to more than 10 billion yuan (HK$12.3 billion). As has become usual on the mainland whenever there is a tragedy, the furore has been directed at authorities, who have been accused of skimping on drainage and sewage systems in their rush for an impressive skyline. There is a measure of truth in that, but the disaster has revealed a more pressing problem - a severe lack of emergency preparedness.
With annual rainfall in southern China almost four times as much as in the north, it would be wrong to make comparisons about infrastructure. Hong Kong is prone to powerful storms and the experience of destructive winds and rain has ensured that buildings and drainage systems have been designed to cope. Beijing has a largely dry climate and authorities should not be expected to follow the same construction guidelines. Most of the deaths were in the rural hilly outskirts of the city, places where sophisticated drainage networks would not be expected to be found.
But the disaster is nonetheless a major embarrassment for the government, which has made Beijing the showpiece of its modernisation drive. Citizens nationwide are rightly worried that if the capital is susceptible to flooding on such a scale, cities that are less prominent could suffer an even worse fate. Municipal authorities have been quick to respond to the criticism, with 100 million yuan in relief funds for the families of victims, the 77,000 people who were evacuated and those suffering hardship. Waterlogged roads and railway lines are being reopened promptly and officials have pledged to study infrastructure and make improvements.
The sure-footedness of the response does nothing to assuage concerns. So large and populous a country is bound to experience natural and manmade disasters and a well-developed recovery mechanism is in place. But nature can be wild and unpredictable; it has a habit of throwing challenges that had not been previously envisaged. It has done that in Beijing and surrounding areas and if emergency planning had been better, there surely would have been less loss of life.
Insufficient warning was given about the impending storm. Evacuations should have taken place in areas vulnerable to flooding. When waters rose, too many people did not know what to do. It takes time to get infrastructure up to international standards, but emergency planning is comparatively inexpensive and simple. In the wake of the mopping up, attention has to turn to education and alert systems.