The devastating mudslide in north-west China that has killed 1,117 people so far, with 627 others missing, was not a 'natural' disaster but the forseeable consequence of China's cavalier attitude to the local environment, experts have said, writes Peter Foster for The Daily Telegraph, London.
China's government is under growing pressure over the disaster after it emerged that there had been repeated warnings of the dangers of landslides around Zhouqu following decades of mining, logging and damming rivers for hydroelectric power.
While China's premier Wen Jiabao posed for cameras near rescuers trying to find the more than 600 still missing, local media quoted a growing chorus of experts who warned that the landslide had been "an accident waiting to happen".
A 2006 report by Lanzhou University warned of the dangers presented by the destruction of the forests around Zhouqu for mining and agriculture, causing soil erosion and destabilising hillsides.
"The hills have become highly unstable and easily subject to natural disaster of landslides and mudslides," the report said. "The situation is the result of deforestation, exploitative mining activities, construction of hydroelectric power plants and other development activities."
Zhouqu, once known as the "Shangri La" of Gansu Province, has suffered more than ten major landslides since 1823, but experts said the risk had been increased hugely by the felling of more than 126,000 hectares of forest between 1952 and 1990.
In more recent years, the construction of a highway and more than 40 hydroelectric power dams in the sharp-sided valleys has further destabilised the geology, according to Fan Xiao, a leading Chinese geologist based in Sichuan.
"Local authorities have ignored daunting warnings about the severe consequences of dam-building and viewed dams as their key source of taxation, which contributed 50 per cent of Gannan's revenue according to official statistics," Professor Fan told the South China Morning Post. "Had those warnings been taken seriously, the disaster may have been averted."
Reports from the disaster zone also suggest a growing anger among the inhabitants of Zhouqu that the warnings were not heeded and that a better disaster action plan had not been put in place.
"This has happened before. The government knew it could happen again and did nothing to prevent it," a local farmer Yang, who did not want to give his full name, told Reuters as he searched for five of relatives buried in the mud.