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China mudslides were predicted 13 years ago

Chinese scientists warned that deforestation in geologically sensitive areas could exacerbate China mudslides.

Rescue workers continue to dig for victims of a mudslide that swept into the town of Zhouqu in Gannan Prefecture in northwestern China's Gansu Province, Aug. 11. Heavy rains Wednesday lashed a remote section of northwestern China as the death toll from weekend flooding that triggered massive landslides jumped to more than 1,000 and the hopes of finding more survivors faded.

Ng Han Guan/AP Photo

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Monster monsoon rains may have loosened the mud and rock that buried and killed more than 1,000 people in the northwestern Chinese Province of Gansu over the weekend, but the mudslide in Zhouqu was more than a natural disaster.

Official records show that government-run lumber companies cut 313,000 acres of forest from the slopes of Zhouqu county between 1952 and 1990, denuding the geologically vulnerable mountainsides and subjecting them to soil erosion.

Thirteen years ago two Chinese scientists published a paper warning that following “the destruction of the eco-system” in the district, “a rainstorm will carry debris down the gully, destroying farmland, houses, roads, bridges, water facilities, and power systems and causing death and injury.”

That rainstorm struck on Saturday night, Aug. 7, with the catastrophic consequences researchers Ma Dongtao and Qi Long had predicted in 1997 – though one of them is surprised by the scope of the disaster.

“The mudslide was caused by geology, but it was worsened by deforestation,” Dr. Qi says today. “I never expected such a huge slide.”

Highest death toll in more than a decade

Survivors huddled in tents under more rainstorms on Thursday, after a new overnight mudslide blocked a key road into Zhouqu only hours after heavy equipment had begun arriving.

The weekend disaster brought this summer’s nationwide death toll from floods and landslides to more than 3,000, according to official figures. That is the heaviest such loss of life for more than a decade.


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