Disaster warning all in the clouds


In February last year, a retired, slightly balding seismologist went to China's Government with a fearsome forecast: gigantic floods, perhaps the worst in 100 years, would soon lash southern China. Time proved Huang Xiangning right.

By the end of September, at least 4,150 people had died. But government officials say the death toll and damage could have been worse without the precious months of preparation that Mr. Huang's early warning gave them.

"He is a hero," said Wang Zhenyao, the disaster relief official who received Mr. Huang's warning four months before flooding struck. "His was a very big contribution."

Learning the lessons of the past is important as China heads again into its annual summer flood season. Torrential rains in southern Hunan province have already killed three people. In the north, authorities have been ordered to shore up dikes and prepare for flooding along the Yellow River, China's second-longest. As hurricanes, floods and other natural calamities become more common, scientists, governments and other experts are trying to find ways to reduce the devastation.

At an international conference on disaster management in Beijing recently, delegates from countries as diverse as Papua New Guinea and Canada heard how China and other countries have battled nature's wrath.

The biggest lesson of China's floods last year was communication. Forecasts that are given to, understood by, and acted upon by public officials make "the greatest difference in disaster mitigation", Kerstin Leitner, the United Nations Development Programme's representative in China, wrote in a paper issued at the conference.

Mr. Huang, a 62-year-old retired researcher of the earth's crust, stumbled across his flood prediction method while trying to find a link between clouds and earthquakes. Over years of looking at a special type of cloud, Mr. Huang found that areas where the clouds were concentrated received a drought the following year. Areas with no clouds got floods. When he drew up his cloud map for 1998, Mr. Huang saw trouble. "The whole of south China was blank," he said.

In his forecast marked "Warning!", Mr. Huang said three rivers, including the Yangtze, China's longest, and 11 provinces faced major floods. He recommended mass-producing life preservers and inflatable boats; moving grain, medicine and people in flood-prone places to safe areas; and protecting the building site for the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze.

Mr. Huang was not the only scientist warning of floods, but he was among the first and the most accurate, said Mr. Wang, the disaster relief official. Mr. Wang relayed the warning to his minister who then advised the State Council.

Tents were produced to house people whose homes would be flooded. Anti-flood plans were drawn up. Officials were trained to deal with floods. Dikes were raised and strengthened, and reservoirs drained to collect floodwater.

While last year's flooding was called the worst in nearly a half-century, the official death toll of 4,150 was far lower than ones from earlier floods: 142,000 in 1935, 31,000 in 1954 and 7,300 in 1991, officials said.

This year, one expert has warned that southwest China will have floods in July and August, and the central Government is concerned about flooding on the Yellow River. But experts generally agree the Yangtze will not see a repeat of last year's high waters, Mr. Wang said.


(Note: Professor Huang Xiangning is a UNGP-IPASD scientist. He brought his research results to the attention of the UNGP-IPASD Coordination Unit at CAS in January 1998. The staff of the Coordination Unit worked closely with him to pass the information on.)

(UNGP-IPASD = United Nations Global Programme for the Integration of Public Administration and the Science of Disasters, supervised by Dr. Jeanne Marie Col at UNDESA in New York (Tel: 212-963-8377);

CAS = Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, China)

Published in the South China Morning Post on Saturday, June 19, 1999. REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION ________________________________________________________________