China: Zhouqu landslide, a man made disaster

On August 8, a landslide happened in Zhouqu in Gansu province. According to official Xinhua news, the disaster has so far taken away 127 people's lives and 1,294 people reported missing.

Since there is very limited information from official media outlets, Woeser's coordinated a collaborative investigation via Twitter soon after the disaster happened. Twitterers made phone calls, dug out past news report and data and they found out that the landslide is a result of 1. the construction of hydro-electric power plants; 2. mining; 3. deforestation. In a nutshell, it is a man-made disaster.

Hydroelectric projects and gold rush

Apart from heavy rainfall, the main reason for the landslide is caused by the construction of a number of hydroelectric power plants.

甘肃省甘南藏族自治州舟曲县不过13多万人,20个乡,但近年来,有水电开 发项目47项,已建成巴藏水电站、立节水电站等15座水电站,还有虎家崖、两河口等14座水电站在建。来自当地藏人的消息称,这次舟曲县所爆发的泥石流, 与如此之多的水电站对生态环境的破坏有关,吁关注。

The Tibetan autonomous region in Gansu Zhou Qu county is consisted of 20 towns with a 130 thousand population. In recent years, there are 47 hydroelectric power plant construction projects in the region and so far 15 hydroelectric power plants have been constructed, including Bacang hydroelectric power plant, Lijie hydroelectric power plant. 14 more are under construction, including Fujiaai, Lianhekou. Sources from local Tibetan said that the landslide is related with the numerous construction project, which has devastated the ecosystem of the region. They urge for more concern on the matter.

A Gansu government report in 2009 has more detailed data:

从2003年至2007年,共有53个水电开发建设项目签订合同,41个水电开发建设项目已建成或在建,12个马上就要开展前期工作, 这些水电开发建设项目占全县各类开发建设项目的80%以上,41个在建或已建的水电站工程合计扰动地表面积达322.83hm2,弃渣达3834.8万m3,水土流失预测量达74.9万t.

Between 2003-2007, there were 53 hydroelectric power plants construction contract signed. 41 of the project has been finished or under construction. 12 of them will begin soon. All these project together will be able to supply 80% electricity in the county. The total construction area of the 41 projects reached 322.83 Square Hektometer. The amount of disposed material reached 3.8348 million cubic meters. Water and soil erosion reached 749 thousand tons.

Apart from construction projects, the land has been exploited by mining activities. @dographer points out:


There are mining activities in Zhouqu for many years. All the trees in the hillsides had been logged and you could see dark mud exposed in the air. The river has been polluted with gold rush and it is all muddy. The area has been ruined for long. The location of the town is down hill at the village. It is surrounded by cliffs and dangerous slope. Some buildings are constructed in the slopes. I visited the site many years ago, it is not suitable for human habitation. Actually, the town was also hit in the 512 earthquake in 2008.

@bimawen posted a google map showing the landscape of the Zhouqu town and pointed out that the disaster is also a result of lack of public monitor:


What happened to Zhouqu is a natural disaster or man-made disaster? Take a look at the map: according to common sense, landslide would resulted in barrier lake / dam. However, it takes time for the water to break the dam. Where were the media during that period of time? where was SARFT? where were all the phone lines and wireless communication? Where were all the micro-bloggers? The blocking of information flow had resulted in such kind of disaster!

Alerts from experts and media reports

Actually, we could find many alerts done by experts and media workers via the internet. Twitterers human flesh searched the Internet and found several reports and researches having warned against the soil erosion problem of the Bailong river in Zhouqu county. One of the reports on water resource pointed out:

舟曲县水土流失日趋严重,白龙江流域的自然生态环境发生了恶性变化, 由此诱发的洪水,滑坡,泥石流灾害不断,严重威胁着当地居民的生存安全。”

The situation of water loss and soil erosion problem in Zhouqu county is very serious. The natural environment and ecology in Bailong river area is devastating and the situation induces flood, landslide, mudslide and all kinds of natural disaster. It threatens the security of local residents.

A research on landslide problem in Bailong river district conducted by Lanzhou University in 2006 also pointed out:


The hills have become highly unstable and easily subject to natural disaster of landslides and mudslides, the situation is the result of deforestation, exploitative mining activities, construction of hydroelectric power plants and other development activities.

A news report back in 2008 pointed out that the Zhouqu county was once a human paradise surrounded by rivers and forests:


Back in the 50s till the 80s, Zhouqu is like the Jiang nan (most prosperous area in southern China) in Gansu, surrounded by forests. However, as a result of exploitative logging activities, the mountain slopes have been exposed to erosion and landslides occurred frequently in rainy season.

@try2feel found another news report in 2008 describing the landslide problem in Zhouqu:


The 2008 report: There are more than 60 landslides in Zhouqu, 13 of them were serious cases that threaten the safety of local residents. The landslide problem has to be tackled in earthquake reconstruction work.

History of the man-made eco-disaster

The history of logging activities dated back to 1958, the year of Great Leap Forward:

1958年“大跃进”时期,舟曲县森林资源遭受到掠夺性破坏。据统计,从 1952年8月舟曲林业局成立到1990年,累计采伐森林189.75万亩,许多地方的森林成为残败的次生林。加上民用木材和乱砍滥伐、倒卖盗用,全县森 林每年以10万立方米的速度减少,植被破坏严重,生态环境遭到超限度破坏

Zhouqu's natural resource has been exploited since 1958, the Great Leap Forward period. According to public data of the Zhouqu's ministry of forestry, from 1952-1990 the logging areas was consisted of 1.8975 million mu. The virgin forest had been turned into artificial secondary forest. In addition, illegal logging activities has result into an annual loss of 100 thousand square meter forest land, the ecology of the maintain slopes are ruined totally.


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