Weeks of torrential rains have caused the worst flooding in China in recent decades, destroying the homes and livelihoods of millions of people as the country struggles to revive an economy battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Since June, devastating floods have impacted 38 million people – more than the entire population of Canada. Some 2.24 million residents have been displaced, with 141 people dead or missing, the Ministry of Emergency Management said Monday.
On Sunday, Chinese authorities raised the country’s flood alert to the second highest level in a four-tier emergency response system. Chinese President Xi Jinping described the flood control situation as “very grim” and called for “stronger and more effective measures” to protect lives and assets.
The unfolding disaster comes as China is still reeling from the aftermath of the coronavirus.
The pandemic and a weeks-long shutdown throughout much of China dealt a historic blow to the country’s economy. GDP shrank 6.8% in the first quarter, the first contraction that Beijing has reported since 1976. The country promised in May to throw 3.6 trillion yuan ($500 billion) at its economy this year in tax cuts, infrastructure projects and other stimulus measures as part of a bid to create 9 million jobs and blunt the fallout from the pandemic.
The flooding is likely to complicate those recovery efforts. Some of the worst affected areas include many of the regions hardest hit by the coronavirus, just months after they emerged from strict lockdown measures.
While summer flooding is a common reoccurrence in China due to the seasonal rains, this year’s deluge is particularly bad. It has hit 27 out of the 31 provincial regions in mainland China, and in some places, water levels have reached perilous heights not seen since 1998, when massive floods killed more than 3,000 people.
A total of 443 rivers nationwide have been flooded, with 33 of them swelling to the highest levels ever recorded, the Ministry of Water Resources said Monday.
The majority of these rivers are in the vast basin of the Yangtze River, which flows from west to east through the densely populated provinces of central China. The river is the longest and most important waterway in the country, irrigating large swathes of farmland and linking a string of inland industrial metropolises with the commercial hub of Shanghai on the eastern coast.
This year, the summer rains arrived early and poured with unusual intensity. Over the past weeks, the average precipitation in the Yangtze River basin reached a record high since 1961, authorities said.
“Compared with before, this year’s rainfall was more intense and repeatedly poured down on the same region, which brought significant pressure on flood control,” Chen Tao, the chief weather forecaster at the National Meteorological Center, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Sweeping floodwaters left a trail of devastation, ravaging 8.72 million acres of farmland, destroying 28,000 homes and in some cases submerging entire towns.
According to state news agency Xinhua, by Sunday, the floods had caused 82.23 billion yuan ($11.75 billion) of economic losses nationwide.
In central China’s Hubei province, which accounted for more than 80% all of China coronavirus cases, historic levels of rainfall were recorded in several cities, causing widespread floods and landslides. As of Thursday, more than 9 million residents have been affected in the province of 60 million people, causing 11.12 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) of economic losses, Xinhua reported.
Last week, authorities in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the coronavirus, raised the city’s flood alert level to the second highest, after days of heavy downpours submerged many of its roads and a waterfront park.
Further downstream on the Yangtze River, in eastern Jiangxi province, the water levels in China’s biggest freshwater lake, the Poyang Lake, rose to a historic high of 22.52 meters (74 feet), well above the alert level of 19.50 meters (64 feet), according to Xinhua.
As of Sunday afternoon, floods had disrupted the lives of over 5.5 million people in the province, with nearly half a million evacuated from their homes, China’s state-broadcaster CCTV reported.
The flooding is unlikely to subside as more heavy rains are forecast for the coming days. On Tuesday, the China Meteorological Administration issued a blue alert for heavy rain from Tuesday to Saturday in multiple provinces in the country, including Sichuan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.