Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
The 33-foot-deep man-made landslide, which has rescue teams searching for more than 80 missing people, is yet another consequence of Shenzhen’s rapid urban development.
After a landslide blanketed a Chinese industrial park on Sunday, toppling 33 buildings and setting off a pipeline explosion in the city of Shenzhen, at least 85 people are reportedly still missing. Around 600 people have been evacuated and another seven have been pulled from the rubble. The rescue effort has involved nearly 3,000 people, 151 cranes and other construction equipment, along with search dogs and life-detecting devices, according to the Associated Press. Among the collapsed buildings were office towers, factories, dormitories for workers and their families, and a cafeteria.
“They are still digging, but in my heart I know that there’s no hope,” Ye Shiming, a factory worker searching for three of her children and her father-in-law, told The Wall Street Journal. “The area is buried so deep. The mud is piled up seven stories high.”
But the landslide was anything but a natural disaster. Authorities say that it was yet another result of human error in China’s growing cities. According to China’s Ministry of Land and Resources, a 330-foot-high man-made mound of dirt and construction waste had been built too steep over the last two years. When heavy rain hit the region, it rendered the soil too heavy and unstable, eventually leading to the collapse of the mud pile.The landslide covered 450,000 square yards with 33 feet of silt, while the natural hill that the mud pile sat on remains intact.
Locals told the media that they had long seen the pile of construction waste as a danger. Shenzhen is one of China’s fastest-growing cities, transforming from tiny fishing village to a prominent manufacturing hub over just three decades. But the constant demolition of old buildings to make room for new ones has led to unregulated—and often illegal—dumping of construction waste. According to local media, local businesses had been warned about the dangers of soil erosion at the site back in January via an environmental-impact report released by Shenzhen-based company Zongxing Environmental Technology, The New York Times report. (The Times also notes that the report was later deleted.)
China has long had an alarmingly poor track record of industrial safety, with a history of dangerous working conditions, chemical accidents, and a lack of regulation as a result of corruption. This latest landslide comes just months after a series of chemical explosions in the growing city of Tianjin killed more than 100 people and left the surrounding area in ruins. In that accident, The Times reported, major shareholders used their family ties to store hazardous chemicals in a warehouse despite it being a violation of regulations that prohibit such dangerous material from being stored within 3,200 feet of residences.
Officials have been working to pass workplace safety reforms, sun as increasing fines for malpractice. But those often compete with a desire to build quickly—which means even new regulations are rarely enforced.