Heavy rains in eastern and central China have caused flooding across two dozen provinces and left 186 dead in recent weeks.
One of the worst hit areas was the large central city of Wuhan, already susceptible to flooding because of its location at the intersection of two rivers. Over 169 roads were closed, subways were flooded, electricity was cut, and at least 14 people have drowned.
But alongside the natural disaster, authorities in the city are now facing another problem: accusations that their own corruption contributed to the destruction.
There are a number of indications that the disaster was exacerbated by at least two man-made factors: a highly expensive drainage system that was meant to prevent flooding and the illegal filling in of multiple lakes and wetlands that once diverted excess water.
Citizens have taken notice. “I want to know how that 13 billion yuan (about $1.9 billion) was spent,” wrote Wang Xinyu, a Wuhan resident studying in Beijing, whose letter to the Wuhan authorities went viral online. Wang was referring to the publicly stated cost of the drainage system.
“Yesterday the water bureau in Wuhan stated that it had only spent a total of about 4 billion yuan (about $600 million).”
The drainage network failed to deliver in the face of the heavy rains, which totaled about 580 millimeters (about 23 inches) and lasted from June 30 to July 6. The system, completed this year, was only built to withstand 200 millimeters, the water bureau said in a statement.
But the filling in of natural water catchment areas appears to be just as much of a problem.
Originally consisting of three separate cities along the Yangtze River, Wuhan was also surrounded by many lakes of varying sizes. China’s contemporary real estate craze has resulted in many projects to reclaim land from these bodies of water—a trend that experts say has impacted Wuhan’s environment significantly.
According to an article published by the state-backed China Business Journal, only 38 of Wuhan’s original 127 lakes remain; about 56,000 acres of land have been reclaimed since the 1980s.
Land reclamation has long received a free pass from the Wuhan government. According to China Business Journal, a little less than half of the projects between 2003 and 2013 were completed without legal permits. Developers could also gain city approval after paying a fine of 200,000 yuan (roughly $30,000).
Lakes serve as natural reservoirs for excess rain. According to Jiang Hong, a professor of geography at the University of Hawaii-Manoa who specializes in Chinese environmental issues, the drastic reduction of Wuhan’s lakes and wetlands has had a hand in exacerbating the flooding.
“The ability of the ecosystem to absorb water is reduced,” she wrote in an email. “I think it is safe to assume that the area will become more prone to flooding and the effects of drought.”
Zhou Yu, a professor of geography at Vassar College, suggested the effect may be somewhat more marginal, and that the geography of Wuhan—a wetland with two major intersecting rivers—is already at great risk of flooding.
Rapid urbanization has only exacerbated this, she said.
“The loss of wetlands and lakes will damage the health of the ecosystem, such as wildlife and water cycles,” Zhou wrote. “It will increase urban flooding and overwhelm the wastewater system.”
She concluded, “The best thing to prevent a flood in Wuhan is to not build a city there.”
With reporting by Luo Ya