Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The next Chernobyl?

Disasters- real, potential or imaginary- hold a strange and morbid fascination, particularly when observed at a comfortable distance. Whether it is Katrina, the Christmas 2004 tsunami, or the Next Great California Quake, there is something in our response beyond horror or compassion. As the great Southern writer Walker Percy says in Lost in the Cosmos (fair use quote):
A fellow commuter tells you of the news bulletin..San Francisco has
suffered the long awaited major earthquake, casualties are estimated at 200,000.
Why is your fellow commuter so excited that even as he shakes his head
dolefully, his earphones come loose?....

Imagine you are a NATO colonel defending Greece against a Soviet attack.
You are in a bunker in downtown Athens. A missile attack is under way. Half
a million Greeks are dead. Two missiles bracket the Parthenon. The next
will surely be a hit. Between columns of smoke, a ray of golden light catches
the portico. Are you bored ? Can you see the Parthenon?

If real disasters are not big enough, potential ones -huge, world changing cataclysms- are the stuff of block buster movies. California's Big One pales in comparison to the collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, flooding Miami, New Orleans, Venice and Bangla Desh.
But there are more likely catastrophes, with consequences just as grave.

China is in an unprecedented economic boom, with all the ingredients for a massive train wreck: manic growth, rampant corruption, a large and unskilled labor force, rapid technological change, and a political system with little transparency or responsiveness to its people. The recent toy and food scares are good examples of the problems that China faces; but the potential for massive infrastructure failure is the disater waiting to happen.

Besides poor maintenance, there are four chief causes of infrastructure failure: design errors due to inadequate skills; construction errors due to inadequate skills; shoddy design to meet a budget or schedule; and shoddy construction for the same reasons. Consider the enormous amount of current construction in China- dams, nuclear power plants, bridges, highways, stadiums, entire new cities being built from scratch. Given the corruption in Chinese government and business, the frenetic pace of construction, and the level of skills in a low wage workforce recently moved from the rural villages, how many of those four magic errors exist in the typical Chinese construction project?

The 1999 Izmit, Turkey earthquake killed 17,000 people; many casualties were caused by the collapse of new, poorly built high rise apartment towers. Past disasters in China have had death tolls unimaginable by Western standards: the Shaanxi quaake in 1556 killed 830,000. The 1976 Tangshan quake killed 255,000. The Banqiao dam failure in 1975 killed over 200,000.

It's been said that the Soviet Union collapsed because of Matthias Rust's plane flight to Red Square, the Afghan war, and Chernobyl. An economic recession in China would put severe strains on Chinese government and society. A disaster like Banqiao, Tangshan or Chernobyl, with the resulting economic and social effects, could bring upheaval. If Tian an Mien 1989 is an indicator, the breakup of the Chinese empire would be far more brutal than the Soviet collapse, and the impacts even more far reaching.

No comments: