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China’s Post-Pandemic Water Woes

The Yangtze River in the city of Yichang, Hubei Province, China.

Few places have suffered more from the COVID-19 pandemic than southern China, the region where the novel coronavirus was first detected in the city of Wuhan. But it turned out that the pandemic is not the only calamity to befall south China this year. The region has been inundated by heavy rainfall since late May, creating a risk of catastrophic flooding.

While southern China typically sees heavy rainfall in the summer months, state media reported that this year’s precipitation has been roughly 20 percent higher than normal. Other outlets report that flooding has affected over 30 million people across dozens of provinces and resulted in over 120 deaths. 

Conditions have worsened dramatically over the past week. On July 10, the Yangtze River Commission, a government body responsible for flood control, raised its alert level to the second-highest category, signalling a major emergency. On July 12, meanwhile, the height of the Yangtze River near Wuhan reportedly reached the third-highest level ever recorded. Further downstream, in Jiangxi province, water levels surpassed those recorded during the 1998 flood, the worst in modern history. The same day, state media quoted top leader Xi Jinping as saying the situation was “extremely grim.”

As Xi’s admission suggests, for Beijing, already reeling from the pandemic, the floods present a high-stakes political test. After devastating floods in 1998 killed several thousand people, China invested heavily in flood control and built one of the world’s most sophisticated flood disaster prediction and response systems. Even so, serious institutional gaps remain in key areas like flood insurance, which is sparsely used and means that property damage losses may be irretrievable. Worryingly for the Party, Chinese netizens have already begun criticizing Beijing’s initial response, especially given that Premier Li Keqiang visited Guizhou, far upstream of the most severely flooded regions. Social media users have moreover noted the relatively sparse coverage of the flooding in traditional media, suggesting that censorship is to blame.   

Such responses risk repeating the initial reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, which included attempts to minimize the scale of the outbreak and discredit whistleblowers like physician Li Wenliang, provoking widespread public anger. Several signs suggest that China’s ruling Communist Party recognizes the high potential cost of bungling its response to the flood disaster. In recent days, state media has run articles portraying local Party officials heroically waging a “battle without smoke” against the floods. Xi, moreover, explicitly tied flood disaster response to the Party’s over-riding mission of poverty alleviation—perhaps implying that anyone criticizing one could also be accused of undermining the other.   

The greatest risk of the flooding, both to the Party and the people, is the prospect that one of the Yangtze basin’s many large dams could fail. In late June, a well-known Chinese hydrologist, Wang Weiluo, caused a stir when he warned that the massive Three Gorges Dam, one of the world’s largest, was at risk of collapse, threatening tens of millions of people. The dam has long been a magnet for controversy. A 1992 legislative vote to approve the dam’s construction revealed unprecedented opposition, with fully one-third of China’s normally pliant lawmakers voting no. Concerns have also been raised about the dam’s structural integrity. In 2003, cracks up to 10 meters long appeared in the recently completed dam, and in 2011 top officials admitted the need to solve “urgent problems” related to the project, including “geological disaster prevention.” Last year, meanwhile, a social media user posted satellite images they claimed showed structural deformation of the dam.    

These allegations strike a chord among Party officials. In addition to long-standing criticism directed against the Three Gorges project, the 1975 failure of several dams along the Yellow River during a typhoon is estimated to have killed over 200,000 people, and contributed to the Party’s rejection of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Given this history, official sources unsurprisingly deny that Three Gorges is at risk. An article in the Party-linked Global Times newspaper derided “rumors hyped by some Western media” and cited Chinese experts assuring the public that the dam is capable of withstanding the current levels of heavy rainfall. According to official sources, the inflow rate of the Three Gorges Reservoir in early July stood at roughly 50,000 cubic meters per second, while the project’s claimed design capacity is reportedly 70,000 cubic meters per second. In fairness to these official accounts, peer-reviewed research that has reviewed the dam’s structural stability and construction standards has also concluded the dam is sound.     

But Three Gorges wouldn’t have to collapse to bring large-scale suffering on the people of south China—or create a political crisis for the Party. On July 13, the day after Xi’s statement, the Taiwan News reported on satellite photos that appear to show that far more water had been released from the Three Gorges Reservoir than official statements indicated. If true, these releases would suggest that concerns over the dam’s structural integrity were more acute than claimed and could have exacerbated already-severe flooding in the middle reaches of the Yangtze. This scenario would almost certainly stoke widespread anger among citizens of cities like Wuhan who have endured two major natural disasters in the span of just half a year.  

Nor is the Three Gorges project itself the only source of dam-related risk for south China. Even while pledging fealty to Xi’s directives to make flood control a top priority, China’s water experts quietly pointed to the risk posed by small and medium-sized dams and reservoirs. Many of these smaller structures, thousands of which dot the Yangtze river basin, tend to be older, more poorly built, and subject to less oversight than megaprojects like the Three Gorges. If the heavy rains that continue to lash southern China continue, they are likely to be at increasing risk of failure. 

No matter how the current crisis turns out for the Party and the people of south China, both will have to contend with several serious water-related challenges as they emerge from the pandemic. South China’s current flooding is a reminder that the region will be likely to suffer from increasingly frequent extreme weather events as climate change accelerates. Despite continued focus in the western media on water scarcity in China, moreover, the current crisis underscores the fact that flooding is likely to impose higher political and economic costs. Finally, a widely cited study showing that Chinese dams appeared to exacerbate drought in the lower Mekong has heightened tensions with neighboring countries over shared waterways, meaning that criticism of China’s large dams may increase from abroad as well as at home. 

As if the damage wrought by the pandemic weren’t great enough, China’s people and its leaders must continue to tackle a number of serious water woes in the months and years ahead.   


[This article originally appeared on The New Security Beat.]