The Story of Henan, Tibet, and a world under climate crisis

In latter half of July, 2021 saw China struck by severe calamity, as its Central Henan province witnessed a series of deadly flash floods for over a week. According to reports, the flooding, which has so far claimed 69 lives and 5 missing, started on July 17th due to what has been described as the heaviest rainfall in over a thousand years. Images, videos, and accounts of people stranded neck deep in water as the Zhengzhou city metro line flooded has circulated over various media platforms, underlining the desperate need of rescue for over 12 million residents in the city.

According to various sources, casualties continue to be reported, and the flooding in parts of China is yet to completely relent. The rains have not just been directly catastrophic; according to a Reuters report, the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhengzhou, the city’s largest with more than 7,000 beds, lost all power during the flood. This prompted officials to arrange transport for nearly 600 critically ill patients. The floods have also caused a massive explosion in an aluminium alloy plant in Henan, and while the incident has not had any reported casualties, there are bound to be environmental consequences from the plant’s destruction which remains to be seen. Yihetan Dam in Luoyang, about 90 miles west of Zhengzhou is another impending problem, as officials believe that the dam may ‘burst any time’.

The disaster has occurred mere three months before the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP) for United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was to be held in Glasgow, underlining the need and urgency of its success. While climate change related disasters have struck all across the world, with the continued ravages of COVID-19, Asia in particular has been left vulnerable. China, being centre of speculations as the origin of the global pandemic, is bound to be worst affected.

Henan is no stranger to summer rains, or even summer floods. In general, one-off extreme weather anomalies are also not attributed to climate change. However, according to Song Lianchun, a meteorologist with the National Climate Centre, the frequency, duration, and intensity of extreme weather events seems to have increased over time in China, culminating into the July floods. While a combination of weather pattern and anthropological climate change have already caused several issues, China has also been affected by typhoon In-fa, the sixth tropical storm and third typhoon in the northwest Pacific region this year. The high pressure thus generated also led to rainfall ranging between 50mm to over 250mm that were devastating enough for Henan, which lies over 600 miles inland.

In this context, the devastation wrought due to climate change in China should be seen as a reckoning. Precipitation is often seen as a boon in the country, due to the heightened requirement for industry, agribusiness and urbanization. Even as environmentalists continue to raise concerns regarding consequences of Chinese activities that may contribute to climate change, China has remained woefully adamant in continued industrialization of industries with high carbon footprint.

Tibet, in particular, serves as a great example of the blasé attitude with which Beijing has considered the ecological question. Tibetan plateau hosts one of the most important and fragile ecosystems in the world. It feeds most of Asia’s most significant rivers, thereby being indirectly responsible for survival of most fluvial ecosystems and civilizations over the years, and continue to do so even today. The importance of ice capped mountains and glaciers in Tibetan plateau for Earth’s weather phenomenon and heat budgeting has earned the unique cryosphere the name of ‘third pole’.

Tibet, however, is today facing unbridled ecological threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated that there is an indisputable acceleration in mass imbalance in the glacial plateau, and even the Chinese scientific publications have documented overtopping of the lakes and heightened river flows. In a large part, this can be attributed to China’s bid to shifting manufacturing industries in the region, along with resettlement of Han Chinese as workers in Tibet. With rising population came rising industrial development, deforestation and further stresses on Tibet’s resources.

However, problems do not just end with population boom in an ecologically sensitive region. According to a World Bank report, rising anthropological activities have led to black carbon deposits on ice-caps, which have accelerated the melting; the soot absorbs sunlight as opposed to snow’s reflection, which causes an increase in temperatures. Along with the carbon emissions from industries, the heat from the deposits accelerates the melting, creating a flood hazard in the region.

China, however, has not paid mind to their own contribution in the crisis. Instead, they blame the pastoralism and mineral extraction by the native Tibetans as the cause of ecological damage, depriving them of their livelihoods by locking down the regions. They further twist the blame game by suggesting that the industrial development is for sake of the Tibetans themselves, using the excuse to further industrialize the region with highly polluting sectors.

Additionally, the administration took time in acknowledging the problem in the first place. As stated before, water is a boon for the country, and increasing melt water from glaciers increased the amount of water available to the Chinese mainland. Additionally, accorfing to the Minority Rights Group International, melting glaciers left behind fertile land, which Chinese administration has been quick to claim and build on. Due to the vastness of the Third Pole, the anticipated problems of water shortage had been seen as a non-issue for at least a century. Chinese administration erroneously believed that the rising precipitation, caused by rising global warming in the region, would compensate for the declining water in lakes and fill in the glaciers. Erroneous, since it does not consider that Tibet is turning warm enough that the rainfall would not condense to reform glaciers in first place.

The Henan floods have shown, however, that the more freshwater and rains are not necessarily a boon, and may in fact be hiding a bigger terror in the winds. While there is an increasing call for making cities better equipped to deal with extreme weather events, it is equally important that the root cause for need of such mitigation be dealt with first. Beijing should realize that Tibet is well on its way to become the next Henan, and even worse. After all, if the roof of the world collapses due to its ambitions, it will not be an understatement to say that China will be dooming the whole world to fall asunder.