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How China is improving its extreme weather response

Provincial level preparedness is one thing; individuals and local communities acting on warnings of a natural disaster is another, so how is China's approach to preparedness changing, and what can it learn from the UK?

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Recent extreme weather events — including the floods in Henan in 2021 and the China-wide heatwave in 2022 — have shown the importance of upgrading early warning and response systems nationwide, according to China Dialogue’s Jiang Mengnan and Lin Zi

“At about 2pm, the sky went dark and water started leaking into the office. Heavy rain and flood warnings started to appear on Weibo and some of my colleagues put on their waterproofs and went home to check on their families. At the time, I had no idea how serious the situation would get,” recalls one eyewitness who lived through the Zhengzhou floods in July 2021.

Between 17 and 20 July, rainfall in the city broke all records since the Zhengzhou meteorological bureau had been set up in 1951. Chinese scientists have concluded that climate change made the rain significantly heavier.

The downpour did not arrive out of the blue. According to Beijing News, city and county meteorological bureaus in Henan issued 1,184 warnings. On 20 July alone, the Zhengzhou bureau issued 10 red rain warnings. They contained guidance that: government and other bodies should take appropriate preparatory and rescue measures; gatherings should be cancelled with students and workers sent home; and measures should be taken to prevent or respond to floods and mudslides.

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But the warnings did not have the intended effects. The city government did not tell workplaces and schools to close, and a recommendation to “stagger commute times” only came after most people had arrived at work. Measures to reduce risks on the subway and in road and rail tunnels came late. As a result, 380 people died or went missing in Zhengzhou, according to a State Council investigation, with the death toll rising to 398 province-wide.

This highlights the importance of early warning systems and preparedness measures for extreme weather. If we think of “sponge cities” and levees as the hardware of climate adaptation, then the emergency response systems and risk awareness lacking in Henan are its software.

In June 2022, the central government published its National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2035, which calls for a climate-adapted society to be “basically completed” by that year. When compared to the first such strategy, published in 2013, the new version emphasises the importance of monitoring, early warning and risk management. It also stresses building communication and performance assessment systems, and improving cross-departmental cooperation. In other words, the update places more focus on the software.

Now, Chinese cities and communities need to figure out how to put that in place.

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Early warning systems: Guangdong’s 31631 model

Unlike landlocked Henan, coastal Guangdong is used to dealing with typhoons and heavy rain. Shortly after the Henan floods, the central government promoted a “progressive rain warning system” already in use in Shenzhen and Guangdong nationwide. Known as “31631”, each number indicates the time between warnings before an extreme weather event. So, 3 days in advance, a weather forecast is published; 1 day before, the relevant bureau identifies areas expected to be affected and narrows down the timeframe; 6 hours prior, high-risk areas are identified; 3 hours in advance, those areas are refined; and 1 hour before, a final warning names the streets likely to be affected.

The advantage of this approach is that it sets expectations. When the authorities receive the first warning, they know what is coming and can make necessary preparations. The system was used prior to heavy rain in June 2020. When the second warning was issued, the Shenzhen government published guidance on preparing for the rain and its effects. At the fourth warning, subway managers and other authorities put emergency plans into action. The fifth warning announced a citywide closure of schools. While flooding did occur, deaths were averted.

That case shows the importance of close cooperation between the meteorological authorities and government departments, to make sure warnings are given and acted on rapidly and effectively. In the China Meteorological Administration’s instructions for weather warnings, each level (blue, yellow, orange and red) comes with preparedness guidance. For example, in response to a red rain warning, the guidelines recommend “cancelling indoor and outdoor gatherings and closing schools and workplaces”.

But national-level guidelines aren’t enough. More detailed rules and advice are needed at the local level. At a seminar on climate change in the Pearl River Delta region, Du Yaodong, chief technical officer for the Guangdong Meteorological Bureau, explained that provincial emergency management rules published in 2010 specify that the meteorological authorities will publish weather warnings. Further rules in 2014 established that when a yellow, orange or red typhoon warning or a red rain warning is issued, schools should close and non-essential employees should adjust their working hours or go home.

Guangdong government departments work together to respond to extreme weather. The meteorological bureau has worked with the education and labour authorities to put in place automatic school closures when typhoons hit, with accompanying guidelines; and to write into all labour contracts clauses on workplace closures during high-level warnings. The bureau also worked with the transportation authorities on a weather warning response mechanism, and with subway managers to create a set of warnings specific to the subway.

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From warnings to action: challenges ahead

The most challenging part of this process is turning warnings into action. The first obstacle is a lack of awareness about how extreme weather risks are increasing due to climate change. Reporting on the Zhengzhou floods showed that city residents hadn’t paid attention to the weather warnings and didn’t know what the precipitation figures signified. It is particularly easy for those who live in inland cities to assume they won’t see catastrophic rainfall and so ignore warnings.

But He Xin, director of environmental projects at the Guangdong Harmony Foundation, told China Dialogue that things are different in her province. “People in Guangdong are alert to typhoon and rain warnings and know how to protect their homes during a typhoon. But they are less likely to take note of warnings of high temperatures, even though heat is also dangerous. Some older people are reluctant to use air conditioning even when a warning is in effect, which can trigger cardiovascular problems and potentially result in deaths.”

We often say the public lack awareness, but actually officials and workers at the grassroots need better knowledge of climate risks — He Xin, director of environmental projects at the Guangdong Harmony Foundation

A lack of awareness of climate risks can mean emergency measures are taken less seriously. He Xin says that emergency response requirements are often treated lightly at the grassroots level.

“For example, under the guidelines, outdoor public spaces should have been closed during last year’s Tropical Storm Ma-on. Some places closed them for half a day, others for a full day or two days. What actually happened was often down to the individual choices of grassroots officials.” She adds: “We often say the public lack awareness, but actually officials and workers at the grassroots need better knowledge of climate risks. There’s a lot of work to be done educating people.”

Another challenge is the complexity of implementing cross-departmental adaptation measures. He Xin says: “Community adaptation measures are overseen by different departments. The meteorological authorities do weather warnings. Emergency management authorities handle floods. Illnesses arising from heatwaves are the responsibility of the disease control authorities.”

Guo Jiangwen, a senior research fellow at London thinktank Chatham House, emphasises the importance of joined-up action. Recognising that the National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2035 was coproduced by 17 government departments, she says: “Implementation at the local level must also be a process of cross-departmental joint action. Local capacity building by one department won’t be enough. Multiple bodies – environmental protection, emergency services, transport, health – all need to be involved.”

Specific policies are needed to refine national strategy into local action and crisis management. In September, and following on from the publication of the national strategy in June, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment published a guide to drafting provincial climate adaptation plans. It was designed to help provincial governments create action plans to tackle major issues within their jurisdictions. That process has not yet filtered down to the community level. Residents still need more specific policy guidance.

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He Xin offers an example. After the floods in Zhengzhou, the local government ordered electricity distribution rooms be moved above ground to avoid flooding. That might sound simple, but it requires the relocation of electricity cables and neighbourhood committees can’t manage those changes to infrastructure. Without policy support, it can’t be done at the community level.

He Xin thinks a single government body should take the lead, organising and pushing forward with work. She explains that at the grassroots level, work is carried out by neighbourhood committees, village committees and “social work service stations”, which organise community activities. “It is easier to make progress in some communities than in others. For example, in some “urban villages”, populations can be very mixed and so cross-departmental coordination is needed to get things done. If one department can take the lead and manage the work, everyone will be better able to work together and solve problems.”

Preparedness should be based on an evaluation of climate risks. Some countries already have mature systems in place for evaluating those risks: the UK has published a Climate Change Risk Assessment every five years since 2012, according to a 2021 China–UK report. That assessment identifies potential risks climate change will cause to different regions of the UK and estimates their scale and severity. Those assessments then inform the UK’s National Adaptation Programmes. “Adaptation needs to be based on scientific risk assessments,” Guo Jiangwen says. “In China, we’re just starting to assess climate risks. But the task is being taken more seriously and the new National Strategy stresses its importance. In the future, climate risk assessments will inform spatial planning, urban zoning and planning for social and economic development as a whole.”

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Can the 31631 model be applied nationwide?

A month after the July 2021 floods, Zhengzhou again saw heavy rainfall. This time, the city put the 31631 model into action, and the public security authorities, city managers, healthcare providers and emergency services worked together. Workplaces and schools closed and public transport shut down using a “full closure” approach.
While that worked, it will take time to see if the model can be successfully replicated across China. Guo Jiangwen warns that local circumstances need to be considered. Other cities can study the Guangdong model but should also adjust or innovate according to their own needs.

“Take sponge cities as an example. We can’t just replicate the trials already done, as there’s lots of room for improvements,” she says. “Different regions have different types of risks, at different severities. Adaptation and mitigation measures need to take the local infrastructure and resources into account.”

Climate change means that extreme weather events such as the Zhengzhou floods will become more frequent. Adaptation to that involves systemic change – from national strategies to urban climate resilience, to risk awareness and emergency responses at the community level.

“Currently, policy only looks at the provincial level. City and community level policy hasn’t caught up yet,” says He Xin. “Adaptation should be both a top-down and bottom-up process. We must combine information from both ends to ensure effective policy decisions.”

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under the Creative Commons BY NC ND licence.

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