China has hit the UK headlines for all the wrong reasons. Last week, as UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab accused China of ‘gross and egregious’ human rights abuses against its Uighur population, the country’s UK ambassador was forced to counter-claim that: ‘There is no such concentration camps in Xinjiang’. Meanwhile, Raab announced today that the UK Government will suspend the UK’s extradition treaty with Hong Kong following China’s imposition of a new national security law on the territory.
Yet, across huge swaths of China, another huge story is taking place, one that has received far less attention. Heavy rains have swept China for weeks, from the southwest to the east coast. Resulting floods in dozens of provinces have seen millions of people displaced. Official figures state that flooding has caused the death or disappearance of 141 people so far, with 1.8 million people evacuated. Direct losses attributed to flooding are estimated at more than 49bn yuan ($7bn), according to the Ministry of Emergency Management.
Other statistics as to the number of people affected vary wildly, with the Japanese financial paper the Nikkei Asian Review reporting the evacuation of 38 million people, more than half the population of the UK. Some observers are drawing comparisons with the devastating floods of 1998, when more than 2,000 people died and almost three million homes were destroyed.
Seasonal flooding is an annual event in China, especially in its central and southern regions, but has been especially severe this summer, the worst in decades. Floods have hit provincial areas of southern China particularly hard, with intense rainfall sweeping away buildings and ruining thousands of homes. At least 20 million residents in the area have been affected.
More floods are expected. On Saturday 19th July, China raised the flood alert level on the Huai river – which flows through major agriculture and manufacturing hubs in Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces – from Level III to Level II, the second-highest tier. The Huaihe River Commission of China’s Ministry of Water Resources told Reuters that the Huai River’s ten reservoirs have seen water levels exceeding flood levels by as much as 22 feet.
At the same time floods are occurring on the Yangtze, Chinas’s longest river, the banks of which are home to 500 million people. Some areas along the Yangtze River have declared the highest flood alerts. ‘Floods are occurring at the same time at the Yantze River, Huai River and Tai Lake...The flood prevention situation is very severe,’ the water resources ministry reportedly said. The ministry added that water levels in the region are likely to exceed the maximum level that reservoirs can withstand.
On the morning of Sunday 19th July the government used explosives to blast open a dam on the Chu river in Anhui province – a tributary of the Yangtze river – to release surging waters. The water released is being channelled into two storage ponds on a flood plain.
China watchers are now focused on the massive Three Gorges Dam, which sits in the central region of the Yangtze. Completed in 2006, it is the largest hydropower facility in the world. Last week, the dam opened three floodgates as the water level behind it rose more than 50 feet above flood level. Another flood crest is expected to arrive at the dam tomorrow. China is vociferously rejecting any claims that the dam is at risk, but fears are now increasing for the residents of Wuhan, and others provinces that lie downstream of the dam.
Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College London and author of several books on China, thinks it fairly unsurprising that the vast floods have received scant attention. ‘Natural disasters in China aren’t news, unfortunately,’ he says. ‘Floods have been a recurring news item for at least the last two decades from the late 1990s, when there was a really bad spate of them. And then sporadically across the years. So, it’s hard to make a newspaper story out of something that happens so often and is almost inevitable, with the mixture of climate change and the way that dams have been constructed in China. I also guess the context of Covid-19 is overwhelming everyone else.’
Nevertheless, Brown thinks that these type of disasters not only mark the new normal for the superpower, but are the main factor that could one day derail its dominance. ‘Going forward the interesting thing is whether the Chinese government are able to manage these events more in the future. They will happen more and more almost certainly, that’s the pattern over the last two decades and it’s accelerating. Although they are not getting that much coverage, these climate-change related issues in China are the big one. They’re the big one for the world, the big one for China. Public health issues are very serious and have a huge impact. But they are manageable. What we’re seeing unfold in China and elsewhere, but particularly in China – it’s not easy to see a solution on the horizon.
‘We’re so complacent about the stability of China. We go on and on about its political stability, but I suspect it’ll be these issues, if anything, that precipitate some sort of bigger political problems in the future, not not the other way around.’