Typhoon Wipha heads for Shanghai

1.6 million people have already been evacuated. Cue the climate-change/super-storm debate.

Published September 18, 2007 5:11PM (EDT)

Typhoon Wipha, billed as potentially the most powerful typhoon to hit China in 10 years, is barreling down on the province of Zhejiang and the city of Shanghai, and is due to make landfall Wednesday morning. Winds at the center of the super-typhoon have been measured at 198 kilometers per hour and 1.6 million people have already been evacuated from coastal areas.

A direct hit on Shanghai, a metropolis of 18 million people and the financial hub of China, could make Katrina look like a minor squall.

Cue the climate-change debate:

As the storm approached Tuesday, the head of the China Meteorological Administration, Zheng Guoguang, warned that global warming was resulting in stronger and more lethal typhoons.

Zheng isn't just jumping on the latest typhoon bandwagon. The government official has been warning of climate change-related problems all year. In May, he told a conference in Beijing that not only was the number of strong typhoons increasing, but more areas are "vulnerable to the attack by typhoons." Shanghai, which sits at the mouth of the Yangtze River, could be exhibit A.

In April, a study on the impact of climate change on low-lying regions commissioned by the International Institute for Environment and Development observed that:

Between 1994 and 2004, about one-third of the 1,562 flood disasters, half of the 120,000 people killed, and 98 percent of the 2 million people affected by flood disasters were in Asia, where there are large population agglomerations in the flood plains of major rivers (e.g., Ganges–Brahmaputra, Mekong and Yangtze) and in cyclone-prone coastal regions (e.g., Bay of Bengal, South China Sea, Japan and the Philippines).

China has more people living in what are technically referred to as "low elevation coastal zones" than any other country in the world. To make matters worse, preferential economic policies that date back to the reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the mid-'80s have resulted in a steady migration to the coast -- so the most vulnerable areas to rising sea levels and super-typhoons are also the regions experiencing the most population growth.

More from the IIED study:

By amplifying the advantages of coastal settlement with their special economic zones, China is not only attracting more people to the coast now, but is establishing an urban structure that will continue to attract people to the coast far into the future. Unless something is done, there is the possibility that, as well as the people living in the low elevation coastal zone, China's economic success will be placed at risk.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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