China’s Greatest Dam ‘Leaked, Distorted’ as Floods Force More Evacuations

Wang Gang/Xinhua via AP
Wang Gang/Xinhua via AP

Chinese officials ordered more evacuations on Monday and Tuesday as heavy rains continued to flood tributaries of the Yangtze River, dangerously elevating the water level and raising new concerns about the safety of the region’s many dams, including the massive Three Gorges hydroelectric plant.

Roughly two million people have already been displaced by floods during this monsoon season, and while Chinese state media strives to portray the situation as completely under control, increasingly serious flood control measures have been undertaken with little warning, such as blowing up smaller dams at higher elevations to relieve the pressure on Three Gorges.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on more emergency measures taken across the vast Yangtze River region:

Rivers in the Yangtze system have broken their banks in places. A helicopter was used to drop stones into a breach to block the inrushing waters in Hubei.

Crews were dispatched with poles to probe waterlogged embankments for weakness and thousands of sandbags were being filled in preparation for more breaches that would need to be swiftly closed.

Water rose to the level of first-floor windows in exposed ancient towns and crops were completely inundated around the vast Poyang Lake, a network of waterways that empty into the Yangtze below Wuhan.

Damage from floods and landslides already exceeds $7 billion and will probably continue accumulating, as local residents said their villages were without power, and huge crops of rice, cotton, corn, and beans are currently underwater. Bridges and banks are crowded with fishermen trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Record water flow was reported at Three Gorges Dam over the weekend, and at least one more massive surge is expected before the rain tapers off. There is enough consternation among Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials for the first few cracks to appear in state media’s all-is-well coverage of the floods, including a rare admission that the Three Gorges Dam “moved, leaked, and distorted” during the weekend’s record-breaking flood currents. CCP officials previously dismissed all outside concerns about the integrity of the dam as fear-mongering and anti-Chinese bias from hostile foreigners.

China’s state-run Global Times on Tuesday reported that residents of the Enshi area in Hubei province have been told to prepare for evacuation because “the upper reaches of the Qinjiang River are at risk of dam-breaking and flooding at any time.”

“The government asked local residents not to walk along the banks of the Qingjiang River, and prepare for evacuation in response to an instant dam break. The exact evacuation time will be arranged by the local flood control and drought relief center,” the Global Times wrote, noting the city of Enshi is now at the highest of four flood alert levels after experiencing floodwaters strong enough to sweep vehicles off the streets.

Nikkei Asian Review (NAR) on Tuesday found these maximum flood alert levels and remarkable flood control measures incongruous with the Chinese government’s constant assertions that the Three Gorges Dam is not in any danger of structural failure. NAR also skeptically quoted the state-run Three Gorges Dam Corporation insisting the dam was doing an excellent job of protecting cities beneath it from even worse flooding.

Another trouble spot is the Huaihe River, whose situation was described by Chinese officials as “grim.” Thousands of people are trapped by floodwaters in cities along the river, and its dams are struggling to contain surging water levels.

“The river passes through the central region of Anhui, Henan, Jiangsu and Shandong provinces, separating the northern and southern parts of economically vital east China,” NAR noted.

Channel News Asia (CNA) worried that hopes for a respite from heavy rainfall in the days ahead could be misplaced, since “major floods are most severe in late July and up to mid-August, as heavy rains subside after the South China monsoon season is over.”

CNA noted that while many comparisons have been made between the current crisis and the disastrous Yangtze floods of 1998, the 2020 floods are already approaching the scale of the earlier calamity, and the 1998 floods lasted from mid-June to early September.

Flooding is such a persistent problem in southern China that at least 30 cities are undergoing renovations to become “sponge cities,” redesigned with “permeable roads and sidewalks, green roofs, wetlands and natural vegetation to absorb, store and drain rainwater.” The building codes in these cities require large structures to include storage areas for flood water.

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