China's Dams

China’s flood defence network put to the test as it braces for more storms

Is China set for a redo of its 1998 flood crisis?
By Echo Xie for South China Morning Post, July 6, 2020

China’s huge flood defence network in the south of the country is being put to the test by persistent heavy rainfall across the Yangtze River region.

Torrential rain that began in late May has so far affected almost 20 million people in provinces along the river, with at least 121 killed or missing in severe floods, state media reported.

Meteorological bureaus have warned heavy downpours will continue to affect large areas of the country – from Chongqing in the southwest to Shanghai on the east coast – in the coming five days.

Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, was battered by heavy rainfall and thunderstorms over the weekend and on Monday, prompting authorities to raise the emergency flood response to the second highest level of a four-tier warning system, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Workers keep an eye on the water level from the Longwang Temple in Wuhan on Monday. Photo: Xinhua
Workers keep an eye on the water level from the Longwang Temple in Wuhan on Monday. Photo: Xinhua

The city – a key transport hub in central China – recorded more than 250mm of rainfall from Sunday to Monday morning, causing widespread flooding.

As of 4am Monday, the water level had reached 26.79 metres (87.89 feet) at one monitoring checkpoint in Wuhan – 1.79 metres (5.87 feet) above the warning level, the report said.

Meanwhile, heavy rain continued to lash Chongqing on Monday. The city sits on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, and more than 40,000 people who live near the river were forced to evacuate.


A residential area in Qijiang district is one of the flood-hit areas in Chongqing, where more than 40,000 people have been evacuated. Photo: Xinhua
A residential area in Qijiang district is one of the flood-hit areas in Chongqing, where more than 40,000 people have been evacuated. Photo: Xinhua

Ning Lei, an official from the Changjiang Water Resources Commission, told state media earlier that China had 40 reservoirs, including the Three Gorges Dam – the world’s largest hydropower station by installed capacity – that could regulate water flow and prevent flooding.

“After years of efforts, the Yangtze River basin now has a comprehensive flood control system with embankments and the Three Gorges Dam as its backbone,” Ning said.


He gave the example of the commission adjusting the flow of water into the Three Gorges reservoir several times in the past week to reduce pressure on the middle and lower reaches of the river so that vessels could safely navigate through the waterway.

But Fan Xiao, chief engineer at the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau in Chengdu, said the effectiveness of the flood defence network depended on individual dams and the severity of the rainfall.


“If there is severe flooding with persistent torrential rain, like what happened in 1998, it would be difficult to say how effective the dams will be,” he said, referring to devastating floods that killed more than 2,000 people. “The dams have operated well but we haven’t had any real tests so far.”

He added that China could do more to strengthen its flood defence work in areas such as evacuation planning and logistics.


Yang Wenfa, another official with the Changjiang Water Resources Commission, told Xinhua that China had built more than 30,000 flood monitoring stations along the Yangtze River which enabled the authorities to make accurate predictions.

“We can put together an emergency response plan within three to five minutes,” Yang said.


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