06 February 2009

James Fallows wishes he was in China right now to “see first-hand” how people in China are reacting to reports that dam construction may have led to the Sichuan earthquake last year. Here’s a rough translation of the only media report I’ve seen so far addressing the issue:

Foreign Media Stir Up Trouble, Speculate “Sichuan Earthquake was Man-Made”

In the past few days, western media has been spreading the following kind of statement - “Large Dam is the Cause of Last Year’s Sichuan Earthquake”, followed by the rumor that the earthquake in turn induced the current northern drought. Experts believe Western media’s linking of natural and man-made disasters is unscientific and irresponsible.

On January 3rd the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph published a story filed by Shanghai correspondent Malcolm [Moore, only first name published] quoting a “Chinese scientist” saying “Construction and filling of the Zipingpu reservoir in Sichuan altered pressure on fault lines, most likely causing the earthquake.” According to the report, Columbia University professor [Christian] Klose holds the same opinion. This quickly became a hot news item in the Western media. The Associated Press and other media all trumpeted the man-made aspect in their headlines, and a few included photographs of the earthquake’s aftermath to give it additional visual impact.

Gao Jianguo, Vice Secretary General of the China Association for Disaster Prevention said the Zipingpu reservoir couldn’t have brought about so large an earthquake, as a reservoir has never created an earthquake registering over 7.0 in modern history. Experts believe that in covering China’s natural disasters, Western media should use a more objective and scientific approach.

In addition, in regards to Western statements that “China’s current drought was brought on by the earthquake”, the National Climate Center’s director of forecasting Zhang Peiqun says the present drought and the Wenchuan earthquake have no direct connection. “This years major drought is the result of slow changes since last October, primarily the persistent lack of rain. These two events are separated by 5 to 6 months, it is extremely difficult to link them together.” Gao Jianguo says that in disaster research there is a theory of “disaster chains”. One type is a “drought-earthquake chain”. Before an earthquake, underground heat rises up. Up to three years before an earthquake there will normally be a drought. A “flash flood chain” follows the earthquake, as hundreds of kilometers of faultlines can emerge and subterranean water can surface, leading to an increase in rainfall. To say the earthquake was the cause is to obviously reverse the sequence by mistake.

I don’t know anything about geology or climate science, but saying that a reservoir has never caused an earthquake over 7.0 sounds like weak sauce. Doesn’t that mean Gao Jianguo is agreeing that it might have, just as the Western media is saying?

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