The levy running along an irrigation canal, recently shored-up in a 685 million-yuan (HK$860 million) water conservation project, collapsed under the stress of torrential downpours early on Tuesday morning in southern Guangdong province, inundating more than 50 hectares of farm land.
Prior to the upgrade, the levy in an agricultural corner of Zhanjiang had successfully fended off floodwaters for nearly a half century, according to mainland media.
Villagers in the area questioned the structural integrity of the renovated levy, dubbing it a "tofu" project, as government-backed infrastructure projects with corner-cutting characteristics and a tendency to crumble have come to be known. The deputy mayor of Zhanjiang, Zhuang Xiaodong, played down economic losses.
He told a local newspaper the 30-metre breach was "not a big deal" and it would not take long to fix.
Local water authorities, meanwhile, quibbled over how much land was actually flooded, noting that only 20 hectares of farmland was affected though 50 hectares were flooded. They put economic losses at an estimated 600,000 yuan.
The deputy mayor blamed the collapse on design flaws of the levy's drainage channel, but an official with the Zhanjiang water bureau said the construction work did not strictly follow the design.
Local villagers were hardly surprised. They had tried to warn construction workers when they saw that a culvert under the levy, designed to divert floodwaters to a nearby pond, had been removed and replaced with a new one half the original size, Xinhua reported.
A villager told Southern Rural News the levy was improperly built, with cement being poured in areas that had not first been girded with reinforcing bar.
"We thought the levy might collapse when the rainy season started in June," the newspaper quoted a villager as saying. "But our forecast was slightly off."
The levy collapse was not the only problem facing Leizhou. Villagers said they noticed a crack in a section of the levy near a village primary school and warned the construction team. The warning went unheeded by the builders, according to the Xinhua report.
The levy project, listed as a key "water conservation" project in Guangdong, was officially touted for "relieving flood risks and improving irrigation efficiency from 25 per cent to 60 per cent", the state-controlled Zhenjiang Daily reported in March.
In assigning blame, poor supervision was added to the list, alongside design flaws and shoddy construction. Xinhua noted that both the construction team and inspection team were attached to the same provincial water planning department, implying that a lack of independent oversight may be a contributing factor.
Guangdong has seen a number of "tofu" water projects. Last year, three water resource officials in Shantou caught the public's attention by exposing shoddy construction at a key dam project that has witnessed seven major collapses in a three year span.
Again, construction and inspection teams were overseen by the same people at the Guangdong Water Resources Department.
Collapsing levies and dams lacking structural integrity should trigger alarm bells nationwide in light of Premier Li Keqiang's vow, made at a meeting of the State Council this week, to fast-track 172 water conservation projects before 2020 to expand the country's arable land.