The landslides in Tibet this week filled the news with headlines like “China Landslide Toll Passes 1,000” and “More Rain Forecast for Flood-Stricken China.” What’s truly unfortunate about his story—in addition to the toll of human life and suffering—is that this calamity is a man-made disaster created by China.
Although the headlines focus on China, in fact this is the second calamity to also befall the people of Tibet. In April a 7.1 earthquake struck the Tibetan area of Yushu, Kham, and killed 2,698, according to official estimates. Unlike that natural disaster, this latest tragedy affecting the town of Drugchu (in the south-east of Kanlho in Gansu) could have been avoided.
As reported by Global Voices, the Tibetan poet Woeser coordinated a grassroots investigation into the event, revealing that hydro-electric power plants, mining, and deforestation all contributed to the disaster. Government research showed decades ago that the area was vulnerable to landslides, but officials ignored the warnings.
The devastated area is expected to receive yet more rainfall and officials are warning of further mudslides.
Steven D. Marshall and Susette Ternent Cooke, two investigators who put together “TIBET: Outside the TAR,” for Tibet Environmental Watch, an independent site that reports on Tibetan environmental concerns, also made a prescient analysis of the danger to human settlements:
Drugchu’s forests are not visible in the county town region, despite hints of a formerly heavier forest cover even in that district in the occasional patches of trees still standing isolated on high mountain ridges. The presence of an extensive Forestry Office compound in the town confirms the importance of the lumber industry here. This may be the biggest official unit compound in the town, consisting of several large modem buildings, transport space and residential accommodation, and recently awarded an imposing new gate. Clearly the county intends to invest what finances it has into this industry, one of its only potential sources of revenue.
China’s “economic miracle” is coming at a very high price. It is fairly guaranteed that any so-called “act of God” in the region will have an element of human culpability contributing to loss of life and property.
The collapse of schools in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 did not spur the government to investigate or improve construction standards—instead they jailed the investigator who tried to gather information behind the childrens’ deaths. As this latest tragedy continues to unfold and affect thousands, can we hope China’s reaction to be any different?