The disaster that left at least 1,700 people dead or missing in the Gansu province town of Zhouqu was waiting to happen. The area has a tragic history of landslides. Two years ago, geological experts recommended the town be moved because of growing safety concerns that were almost impossible to eliminate. Similar proposals have got nowhere since the 1980s because local authorities lacked the necessary funds.
The question now, however, is not just whether the catastrophe could have been avoided, but whether it will be allowed to repeat itself. Even as survivors searched for the bodies of loved ones, they vowed to rebuild their homes in the same place, where their ancestors lived for generations. Their resilience and reverence for family is to be admired. But the central government must ensure that the lessons of their loss are learned.
The Ministry of Land and Resources blames record rainfall for triggering the slide. This is disingenuous. Such a deluge was inevitable sooner or later, and so were the tragic consequences. Blaming the weather ignores key contributing human factors. Geological experts from Beijing were called in following the May 2008 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in neighbouring Sichuan province. After that, the ministry listed Zhouqu, in a valley between two mountains, as a key site prone to landslides. There can be no question, therefore, that the authorities were fully aware of the growing danger, yet they did nothing.
Granted, the impoverished county could not afford the relocation plan, which would have cost more than 80 million yuan (HK$92 million) in preliminary work alone. And it is not easy to find a site for the expanding town on flat terrain along the Bailong River. Nor is it easy to overrule the wishes of people to stay put where their roots go back for generations. That said, the imminent risk of landslides was not something to be accepted fatalistically, as if it were an unpredictable event like an earthquake or tsunami. In fact, the risk had been exacerbated by reckless development leading to erosion and ecological damage, such as a rash of dam-building and logging, which deforested the mountainsides for 20-odd years until 1998. Since then, it has continued in defiance of a central government ban.
The excuse of lack of funds to relocate Zhouqu, while real enough, raises complex questions about the nation's priorities. Surely, with all the money that is being spent on the Shanghai World Expo, or on the high-speed rail network, some can be found for urgent measures to protect people's lives. Co-incidentally, with the raised profile of the threat to Zhouqu two years ago, Beijing launched a four trillion yuan economic stimulus package to counter the global financial crisis. Government officials around the country lavished money on infrastructure projects, including their own pet schemes. Sadly, saving Zhouqu was not one of them, though the cost of making a start on it would have been a drop in the bucket.
There must be a full inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the Zhouqu disaster. If lessons are to be learned and action taken to prevent similar tragedies in the future, there can be no cover-ups. A reminder of that emerged last week after an explosion at a Henan coal mine last June that killed 49 workers. The mine probably should not have been operating, after a gas leak killed 12 men two months earlier. But official pressure and hush money was used to cover up the accident. Transparency and a proper inquiry could have saved a lot of lives.