Since June 1, central China has been battered by some of the worst flooding in living memory. Flush with near-record rains, the banks of the Yangtze River and its tributaries have overflown, devastating the riverine province-level regions of Chongqing, Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Jiangsu. The resulting floods have left 158 dead or missing, 3.6 million people displaced, and caused economic losses in excess of 144 billion yuan ($20.7 billion), according to official statistics.
These numbers don’t tell the full story, however. Since the rainy season began on June 1, rainfall in the middle and lower Yangtze regions has been 64% higher than normal — and the highest since 1961. Emergency relocations were almost 37% above the average for the past five years, and economic losses up by 14%. But the number of people killed or missing is running 54% below the five-year average, and the number of collapsed houses is down more than 68%.
In other words, although flooding has taken a heavy toll on central China, the rising waters have done less damage than might be expected, given the severe underlying rain and flood conditions. In this, residents have benefitted from recent improvements to the country’s flood prevention and mitigation capabilities, including more accurate weather forecasts, improved flood-control infrastructure, and increasingly sophisticated real-time flood monitoring systems.
Unlike earthquakes, which are unpredictable, floods generally follow heavy rains, with forecasting and warning windows ranging from a few hours to days or even weeks. This means that timely and accurate forecasting plays a critical role in mitigating human casualties and property damage.
China has invested heavily in this field over the past few years. This summer, it’s turned to new and emerging technologies such as its BeiDou satellite system, remote sensing technology, drones, and big data to get a better idea of which areas are most at risk.
On July 9, for example, a flood embankment in the Poyang Lake region in eastern China burst. As the waters rose past levels recorded during the “once-in-a-century” 1998 flood, national disaster relief workers turned to satellite imagery, compiling images of the area pre-and post-disaster, as well as maps of affected areas, at-risk terrain, and nearby water bodies. Just as important, this information was quickly relayed to local emergency management officials, who were able to use it to plan rescue operations.
Moving forward, China should invest further in forecasting and warning systems. It also must make information-sharing the norm, not the exception. Drawing on a similar practice in Japan, the Chinese government has spent more than 3 billion yuan on flood risk maps in recent years, according to reports. Puzzlingly, however, these are currently only available for internal government use.
The relevant departments should make this information public as soon as possible, allowing infrastructure and urban planners to better judge the flooding risk of potential new developments. At present, official tallies show that, despite the overall dyke-protected land area shrinking slightly over the past eight years, the number of people living behind them has risen by 10%.
Further progress on curbing floods also requires greater interregional cooperation on flood prevention and control, especially as it relates to water basin management.
Both the 1998 megaflood and this year’s floods were linked to the country’s watersheds — referring to areas containing the main stem of a river as well as tributaries and lakes of various sizes. Some less economically developed regions, especially in the central and western parts of the country, pay relatively little attention to flood disaster prevention, and consequently are often the hardest-hit in the event of a watershed flood. But the consequences often flow downstream: When a dyke bursts in western China, it can have a cascading effect along the entire watershed.
Currently, flood mitigation and prevention work is the responsibility of local water resources departments operating under the direction of the Ministry of Water Resources. Financial transfers from the central government have helped poorer regions improve their infrastructure — the percentage of dykes meeting regulators’ standards has risen steadily over the past decade — but local governmental bodies still shoulder significant responsibilities, including overseeing the optimization of water networks, soil and water protection, and joint prevention and control within the river basin.
Then there is the question of law and governance. Passed in 1998, the country’s Flood Control Law contains relatively systematic provisions on flood management, but it is largely premised on outdated notions of risk management and response. Rather than simply outlining the obligations of various entities during a flood, the law should be updated to include provisions governing the recovery process, including how to decide what gets rebuilt, who is responsible for overseeing reconstruction, and what compensation residents may be entitled to.
Going further, the government should mandate urban and rural planners to consider the potential flood risk of new or rebuilt developments under the rubric of “resilience.” A technical term first formally imported in 2006, resilient planning calls on officials to account for factors such as climate change, as well as flood-control measures beyond physical infrastructure, when making decisions. The goal is to comprehensively strengthen a community’s ability to resist, absorb, and adapt to external shocks to recover quickly. A resilient community is one in which the combined power of government, laws and technical standards, researchers, social organizations, and individuals can all be brought to bear on a disaster.
Much of Chinese history can be boiled down to millennia of struggle by a riparian society against the unruly rivers on which it depends. Yet floods should not be viewed as simply natural phenomena; they comprise economic, social, cultural, institutional, and management factors, and reducing or mitigating flood risk requires a complex and holistic response. Recent advances are promising, but only a comprehensive approach can bring water and man into harmony.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Residents sit in front of their flooded doorway in Duchang County, Jiangxi province, July 16, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)