11 October 2016

The Sucun landslide: missed opportunities to protect the village

Posted by Dave Petley

Sucun landslide

The Sucun landslide: “In the wake of a deadly landslide, residents look at ‘before’ and ‘after’ satellite images of Su Village, Zhejiang province, Oct. 8, 2016”. Note the clear landslide scar above the village on the image to the right. Via The Sixth Tone


The Sucun landslide

It is now clear that the Sucun landslide in Zhejiang Province, China killed 27 people.  Last week I used archive Google Earth imagery to show that this was a location with a clearly identifiable landslide problem, and that the landslides had been getting progressively worse.  The Sixth Tone, a progressive publication in China, has a pair of really interesting articles about the landslide, and the in particular the missed opportunities to prevent the final disaster.  The first article illustrates rather nicely the way that hazard can become normalised in the minds of the population:

Landslides are a common occurrence in Su Village, Lower Su resident Wang Xiaoqin, 45, told Sixth Tone. Usually it’s just a few rocks rolling down the mountain and nobody gets hurt. The local resident said that’s why few people heeded the warning when village officials told residents at noon on Wednesday that there was the possibility of a landslide, and that they should move away.

For most people, rocks rolling down the mountain would be taken as a warning sign.  But if that occurs in every rainfall event then it becomes normal, and so the population becomes less likely to relocate.  Sadly of course, small rockfalls can be the precursor to a major failure.

The second article looks in more detail at the known hazards at this site, and the missed opportunities to relocate.  It is, with hindsight, a woeful tale:

The disaster, however, wasn’t a total surprise: The village was known to be at risk, but plans to avoid danger were either badly implemented or shelved repeatedly.


But the villagers knew they were living in a dangerous area. Several government initiatives have been drawn up over the years to move at least part of Su Village to safer ground.  Su Zengmin, party secretary for Su Village from 1985 to 2008, told Sixth Tone that since 2006 smaller landslides became a frequent occurrence on rainy days. They reported the issue higher-up, and in 2009 the Suichang County government announced a plan to move the primary school in the village — located in the safer Lower Su — and auction off the land so villagers living in risky areas could build new houses there.


In 2011, the land and resources bureau of Suichang County published an official document on strengthening prevention and control of natural disasters. It said that some 300 people from four villages, including Su, were to be relocated to avoid geological incidents that would result in heavy casualties.  State news agency Xinhua reported a day after the landslide that the county government had listed Su Village as part of a relocation project three years in a row, beginning in 2013, but that the plans were never implemented. The document describing the plans was deleted from the government’s website following the landslide.

This is not an unusual set of events.  Relocation of communities is a very fraught problem, but the images suggest that the hazards posed by the potential Sucun landslide were so clear that the failure to move the village is hard to fathom.

Of course, the difficulties in understanding landslide hazard are not solely a problem in China.  Over the last two days two legal settlements have been reached in the Oso landslide in Washington State three years ago, which killed 43 people.  The State of Washington has agreed a settlement of $50 million and the local timber company, Grandy Lake Forest Associates, agreed a settlement of $10 million.  The defense was also ordered to pay $789,000 in punitive damages because expert witnesses deleted key emails whilst preparing their evidence.

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