Dispatches from a River Town on the Brink
JIANGXI, East China — For the past few weeks, Zhang Chuanneng has been making anxious trips to the levee near his home in eastern China.
The slender strip of raised earth and sandbags is the only thing protecting the 68-year-old’s home and crops from the advancing waters of the Yangtze River, which are at the highest levels seen in decades after weeks of heavy rainfall.
Zhang and his wife, Wu Youmei, farm cotton and corn on a plot of land in Jiangzhou — a small island town sitting precariously on the intersection between the Yangtze River and Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake.
Regions across China have seen some of the worst flooding in recent memory this summer, impacting millions of people and causing billions of dollars in damage. But rural settlements like Jiangzhou have been hit particularly hard, as China’s rapid urbanization has left towns hollowed out and struggling to reinforce their defenses.
Since July 4, the water on this stretch of the Yangtze has surged to over 3 meters above the “warning level,” and Poyang Lake has significantly swelled in size. Buildings outside Jiangzhou’s main levee have already been inundated, with only rooftops and tree canopies visible above the surface. Homes built on the low-lying land inside the levee are now nearly 4 meters below the water line.
For local residents like Zhang and Wu, the situation has revived memories of the devastating floods that engulfed the region in 1998, during which many of them had their livelihoods destroyed.
“The floods have come again this year — it’s frightening,” Wu told Sixth Tone July 14, as she prepared to leave town.
On July 12, the local government in Jiangzhou ordered the evacuation of all children and elderly residents. The local streets are almost deserted, as most locals have already left.
At first, Wu and Zhang vowed to stay and try to protect their property as best they could. But they eventually relented. They hope the levee holds and their waterlogged crops can survive. Like most people in the region, they have no insurance and aren’t sure what economic compensation they’d be entitled to if they lose their possessions.
“If the flood comes, the whole year’s farm work will have been in vain,” said Wu.
The island town has struggled to defend itself during the crisis, as decades of economic migration have left Jiangzhou desperately short of working-age people.
Once a thriving cotton-growing hub, the island now has only 7,000 permanent residents remaining — the vast majority of whom are elderly farmers like Wu and Zhang. The available workforce comprises of fewer than 1,000 people, local officials told Sixth Tone.
The town has ordered everyone aged between 18 and 65 to stay behind and fight the floods. They have been supplemented by some older residents like 70-year-old Yan Ruohan, who has been helping monitor the levee.
“The water level climbed very fast this year, faster than the floods in 1998,” said Yan.
Yan has been working 24-hour shifts, patrolling the levee every hour and reporting any breaches. He’s the only member of his family still living in Jiangzhou, his wife and sons having moved to the southern metropolis of Shenzhen.
“We can’t rely on ourselves alone,” said Yan. “If there’s danger, we have to find helpers. One or two people can’t solve a problem.”
According to Fu Lijun, head of the administrative office at the Jiangzhou township government, labor shortages have made it difficult to strengthen the levee and repair holes in the northern defenses, which are lower-lying and more vulnerable.
“Our pressure when it comes to fighting the flood is huge,” said Fu. “The peak water level reached 22.81 meters, the second-highest water level on record. … It only took 10 days for the water to rise that high.”
Last week, the town received a boost as migrants rushed back from the cities to help with relief efforts. The local government issued a public notice asking former residents for assistance July 10, and so far over 3,000 people have answered the call, said Fu.
Sentries are now posted every 200 meters along the levee, while a detachment of People’s Liberation Army troops has arrived to reinforce the defenses with sandbags.
Over the past few days, the water level in Jiangzhou has somewhat abated from its peak, but it’s still above the warning level. Locals remain concerned about the risk of water seepage or a levee breach, as the waterlogged soil may soften and erode.
A second wave of floodwater, meanwhile, is reportedly flowing down from the upper reaches of the Yangtze and will soon hit Jiangzhou. “We can’t slacken up,” said Fu.
The crisis has left local residents more fearful than ever about the town’s long-term future. Summer floods have become an increasingly common issue over recent years. Since 2016, the waters on this section of the Yangtze have risen above the warning level four times, with 2018 the sole exception, according to Fu.
After the 1998 floods, which killed 4,000 people nationwide, it took months for the water to recede in Jiangzhou. Locals say the town has never fully recovered from the disaster, which hastened the region’s population outflow.
Yan Ruohan still vividly remembers the night in August 1998 before the flood struck. The town flicked the electricity supply on and off again three times — the signal indicating the water had broken through the dam 10 kilometers upstream.
The next morning, torrents of water engulfed the whole of Jiangzhou. Though the town had experienced floods before, the roar of the water crashing onto the houses horrified Yan. “It’s the worst flood I’ve seen in my life,” he said.
By cruel coincidence, that disaster struck just as China was beginning to introduce market reforms to the cotton production sector, which resulted in a crash in cotton prices.
For farmers affected by the floods, returning to growing cotton no longer seemed an attractive prospect. Many Jiangzhou locals, especially younger residents, looked to start over in the cities.
Dong Bangxing, 52, told Sixth Tone he left Jiangzhou to look for work in Jiujiang — a city on the other side of Poyang Lake — after his 20 mu (1.3 hectares) of cotton fields were destroyed in 1998.
“We lost everything, including 10,000 yuan ($1,430) of invested capital and bank loans,” said Dong.
The former resident returned to Jiangzhou the day after the government issued its public notice. He first helped his elderly parents during the evacuation, and is now assisting with efforts to fight the flood.
Like many migrants, Dong no longer uses his land in Jiangzhou and has transferred the usage rights to private entities. But he still feels a responsibility toward the town.
“Nowadays, cotton is worthless and farming isn’t profitable. … But we’re here to protect our houses,” said Dong. “This is still our most important home. We still have feelings for this place.”
But Dong doesn’t think Jiangzhou will ever return to the good old days before 1998, when the town’s streets were crowded and local vendors could sell several pigs a day. His children, who grew up in the city, have little emotional connection to the island, he said.
“When the kids grow up, they leave and won’t even stay at home for 10 days a year,” said Dong. “This place is their second hometown. They’re not coming back now.”
Wu and Zhang, the farming couple, have five children who have all migrated to other regions across China. Their eldest daughter, who now lives in the northwestern autonomous region of Xinjiang, only returns home once every three or four years.
Yet, despite the decline in Jiangzhou’s fortunes, many elderly residents plan to stay in the town and continue working the land. In the days following the evacuation order, several people sneaked back onto the island to tend to their crops.
For the elderly, it’s often difficult to leave. Wu previously tried looking for factory work in the cities, but her illiteracy and advanced age made getting a job difficult.
“Without a job, I’d rather not move in with my children, otherwise I’ll just become a burden,” Wu told Sixth Tone.
“The cities don’t provide for elderly farmers,” she said. “I’m used to living on this island — I was born here. At least I can farm cotton and corn to sustain myself here.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Residents of Jiangzhou Town make their way to land, in Jiangxi province, July 14, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)