After the Flood
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A few times a week I walk from my home into the forest where I visit one or more beaver dams. There are several along the streams that flow from a lake ten minute’s walk away as well as from the runoff that flows in this west coast rainforest. After humans, beavers are the most disruptive creatures in terms of changing a landscape and, over the past decade, I’ve seen how quickly and efficiently they work.
The many dams they have constructed have forced the waters to spread across a low-lying area of forest. The trees, mostly alders, do not live all that long anyway (at most a century, compared to the Red Cedar’s possible 2,000+ years), but the continuous submersion of their roots drowns them and they first lose their leaves, and then branches. Insects infest the vulnerable woods and woodpeckers come and peck away at them, further exposing them to the elements. In time they fall, further blocking the water but this time catching more of the inevitable silt that is carried along the stream beds. Mud builds between the fallen trunks, grasses take root and within a few years the forest will have become a meadow and the beavers will move on.
Often when I look over these changes, my mind wanders back to a visit to Anhui province, China. Anhui is a delicate lace of rivers strung with hundreds of lakes stretched over a tapestry tightly woven with every shade of green; wheat in the north of the province, rice in the south, and tea across the mountains. Among the most densely populated of China's provinces, the people who live in Anhui desperately depend on the strength of their harvests. The terrible truth of this has been seen several times in this century especially in 1954 when 30,000 lost their lives and in 1931 when 890,000 drowned, starved, or died of the many illnesses which run rampant when raging waters destroy clean drinking water supplies and rot the little food that has not already been swept away.
Flooding in 1991 was worse than the disasters of 1954 and 1931–in fact the worst in 100 years. But, Chinese and international rescue and relief, much of it encouraged and coordinated through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), meant that loss of life was limited, and steps toward reconstruction immediate. I visited the area with the UNDP in 1992 and met Fang Gongpu who, at age 70, helped as a watchman at one of the UNDP's projects in Anhui. He was old enough to remember the differences between the floods: "I have two sons, both farmers, and when the rains came this past year they built dykes to protect our home. But the dykes broke and everything was ruined. We lost all our furniture, all our grain. The rains were worse than 1954 and we were left with nothing, but the difference is that now we are all able to find work and again buy the things we need."
And this difference is a radical change in the great irony of disasters: when a flood ruins the livelihood of a place, the peasants who have lived and worked there for all their lives–often with skills limited to simple farming tasks–not only lack the resources to make their land productive again, they also lack the skills and opportunities to earn the money necessary to replace what they have lost. Soon, a cycle of poverty and debt sets in and they lose their savings, their farms, and their hope.
Initial relief operations included temporary shelters, food, water purification tablets, and medical supplies. But extensive donations cannot prevent repeated flooding. People need to do what beavers cannot: think and innovate. A medical clinic in Quanjiao County illustrates the challenges and successes of this approach.
When the floods first came, Anhui's Quanjiao County was among the worst hit. Even in the main town's higher streets, walls bear the marks where torrents of water rose, sometimes as high as five meters (5.4 yards). Rains in excess of three times the average fell and soil-laden waters burst over the banks of the Chu and 22 other rivers which run through the county. Large areas of farmland were inundated, ruining 60% of the wheat crop, and 80% of the rape seed plants. Three-quarters of all urban areas were flooded and the infrastructure–roads, railways, communication, electricity and drinking water supplies–were left in shambles. More than 43,000 homes were affected and a further 18,000 were completely leveled.
Similarly, 325 of the county's 400 schools were damaged and 19 completely demolished. 331 factories as well as 1,400 smaller workshops stopped production. Not even the dead were spared as the waters dug freshly laid coffins from the fields and carried them along the waves. The threat of epidemics loomed over the disaster with the rotting carcasses of 10,000 farm animals floating across the countryside and so it was particularly frightening that 69 township and village medical clinics were badly damaged.
Of course things would be rebuilt. Farmer Chang Xianping was among 40 workers I met at a work site. He struggled with useless dykes then watched as floodwaters rose and flowed a meter high through his home. Like others, he lost most of his possessions, his food, and all his livestock. His third of a hectare of rice fields was destroyed. "I lived in a temporary shelter for a month weaving bamboo mats to reinforce the dykes. After, I went home and worked to scrape the mud and sand out my house. Then I found work as a laborer here."
The work includes creating bricks that are stronger than ones used previously and design changes such as making all schools and clinics at least two storeys. In floods, first-floor equipment and libraries were lost to even moderate flooding. The simple idea of moving X-ray machines and books to an upper floor means that during a disaster, doctors can continue to offer relief.
In the meantime, songs were written, school texts produced, heroes praised, and on the anniversary of the disaster, a play called The Flood opened in Beijing's Children's Theatre. In the play, a cast of villagers seek shelter from the rain and rising water. They all have their personal tragedies and petty conflicts, but in the course of an evening, sorrows are healed and problems solved. The final message of the play? We can all survive if we help each other.
I walk home from the beaver dam. Nothing will stop small floods or large floods. When I was in Anhui, after the flood, I visited farms and saw the river flow by only a few inches below the edge of a field. In our era of climate change, the greatest problem is apparent; too many people live in areas increasingly prone to disaster. Helping each other is not enough and long term survival is only going to come with confronting climate change. Unlike the beavers, we cannot all just move on.