Almost 24 Million People Affected by China Floods, Worst Yet to Come

This photo taken on July 23, 2016 shows a bridge damaged by recent floodwaters in Daxian village in Xingtai, north China's Hebei province. As of July 25, morning more than half a million people in the hardest-hit provinces of Henan and Hebei had been displaced, with 125,000 people in urgent …
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Torrential rains in China continued this week, threatening even worse floods after almost 24 million people have been impacted by 433 overflowing rivers, with millions evacuated and at least 142 dead as of Tuesday. 

The largest of those rivers, the Yangtze, remains the focus of great concern. The third major flood of the year hit the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze on Sunday, pouring 50,000 cubic meters of water per second into its containment systems. An even larger surge was expected by Tuesday evening.

According to China’s state-run Xinhua news service, the Three Gorges Dam has discharged water nine times since July 18. Some residents living below the dam suspect there have been more unreported discharges and worry that officials could decide to vent uncontrollable floodwaters on them if the integrity of the showpiece hydroelectric dam is threatened.

The worst is yet to come, according to a statement from China’s water resources ministry on Tuesday. The ministry described the current flood control situation as “severe” and warned “the new peak may appear later,” with at least three more days of torrential rain on tap.

According to Chinese officials, the water level in the Three Gorges reservoir is currently just under 160 meters, down from a high of 164.18 meters last week. The maximum rated level for the reservoir is 175 meters.

More heavy rains and flooding are expected in several districts along the Yangtze that have already reached the highest levels of flood alert. Vietnam Times on Tuesday quoted China’s water minister stating that discharges from the Three Gorges Dam will have to be “finely adjusted” to cope with the incoming floods and warning residents to prepare for “possible deluges.”

Vietnam Times noted that, according to Chinese officials, the perilously situated Lake Tai has swollen above safe levels for the past nine days in a row, and several stretches of the Yangtze itself have also exceeded safe levels. The flood that reached Three Gorges on Tuesday originated in two lakes that have been flooded above the danger level for over 20 days.

The article noted that Chinese regulators are growing very serious about safety and building code violations, going so far the swift and complete demolition of several commercial structures built improperly along a dike on the Qinhuai River.

A lengthy Twitter thread from Security Studies Group senior fellow C. Kennedy on Monday took a detailed and sobering look at what would happen if the Three Gorges Dam fails. In addition to the huge number of human lives at stake, the political, strategic, and economic effects on China would be catastrophic, and the rest of the world could be rocked by effectively losing 15 percent of its manufacturing capacity in a single day. 

The effect on global shipping would be akin to a waterlogged train wreck stretching for thousands of miles as some of China’s most important ports would flood, and the panicked reaction of the government in Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be difficult to predict. The regime would be nervous about widespread panic and loss of confidence in the government, while the PLA grappled with losing a sizable portion of its combat strength to the floods. 

“It’s the habit of authoritarian regimes to deflect from domestic disasters by lashing outward to external enemies or entities,” Kennedy noted. “It is thus a certainty that a failure of the dam will be painted as enemy action — likely pointing the finger at the U.S. and/or Taiwan.”

The L.A. Times wrote on Tuesday that “fears are intensifying over the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam” as smaller and older dams upriver struggle to contain the record-breaking floodwaters. Local residents are complaining about “mismanaged flood systems, lack of government accountability and unequal treatment of the rural poor, who bear most of the flood burden,” while outside experts warn the Chinese might be paying a terrible price for “over-reliance on dams, excessive construction in low-lying areas, land reclamation in wetlands and lakes, and cities built with poor drainage systems.”

One of the almost universal complaints from Chinese civilians affected by this year’s flooding is that they were given no warning before emergency evacuations were called, or floodwaters came rushing in, sometimes blasting into houses in the small hours of the morning. The floods hit so quickly that students and factory workers found themselves climbing to progressively higher floors during school and work days to escape the rising waters. 

Residents say many of these floods were caused by deliberate discharges from dams made without warning because Communist Party officials were too proud to admit that emergency measures might be needed — which is exactly how Three Gorges Dam officials are behaving right now, according to skeptics of their confident pronouncements.

As Kennedy pointed out, if the Three Gorges Dam fails, the hundred-meter tidal wave it releases will be moving at well over sixty miles per hour, and would hit the first major city below the dam in less than 30 minutes. That city has a population of roughly four million.


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