Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Might Have Caused The Worst Flooding In More Than 2 Decades In China

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

To China now, where vast swaths of the country are being hammered by flooding. It is some of the worst China has seen in more than two decades. NPR's Emily Feng looks into why this year's flooding is worse than usual.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Zeng Hailin lost his job in a uniform factory a few hours away because of the coronavirus pandemic. So he came home to Anhui province. His troubles did not end there. In July, weeks of torrential rain led the small river near his house to swell then overflow. One night, he woke up in a panic.

ZENG HAILIN: (Through interpreter) The water was suddenly up to my chest. I couldn't lift my mother out of bed. I could barely walk because the ground turned to slippery mud.

FENG: So Zeng put his bedridden, 81-year-old mother in a large, plastic washbasin and pushed her into a rescue boat. A week after the flood, he gives me a tour of his earthen home just outside the city of Hefei. It's unfit to live in now.

ZENG: (Through interpreter) The water tore down our electricity lines. The walls are now falling down.

FENG: Zeng is among the estimated 3.7 million people displaced or evacuated across China due to flooding. He now lives in a classroom in the local public school while waiting for new housing. The country's water resources ministry says the worst point in mid-July - 433 rivers rose to dangerous levels. Some broke through dams or overflowed their banks, flooding nearby villages like Hekou in Anhui province.

TANG ANFENG: (Through interpreter) The road in front of our house became a river. We were stuck in our house for days with only some bread, water and instant noodles.

FENG: Like almost all the others, Tang Anfeng's home in Hekou village is now surrounded by submerged fields and damp furniture, a layer of scummy water covering her lost harvest. She points to the dark swath of mildew that now grows on her wall and nearly extends to the ceiling. That's how high the water rose on three separate occasions in July. Tang, in her 60s, says this part of Anhui has seasonal flooding every year. But it was only in the last decade that the water would rise above her ankles.

TANG: (Through interpreter) Whenever it rains too much, they release the water from the dams. But the water floods our village, and we suffer.

FENG: In 1958, authorities began building the first of nine dams and diversionary barriers near Hekou to regulate seasonal flooding by collecting runoff into reservoirs. Today the dams provide hydropower and drinking water to nearby cities as well. But during extreme rains, authorities are forced to suddenly release the water.

BRIAN EYLER: So there's a decision of basically not how much the rivers will flood, but where will the rivers flood?

FENG: Brian Eyler studies China's river management at the Stimson Center, a think tank. He explains engineers must make a utilitarian calculus about where to release water. Other countries, including the U.S., also face greater flood risks because...

EYLER: It's mostly because, again, we are living in places where the rivers have become engineered to allow us to live there. But the engineering is not able to cope with nature. And so nature is getting the best of us.

FENG: Those living downstream in Anhui, mostly in sparse, rural communities, know this hard truth, which Li Huanian, a resident of Hekou village, explains.

LI HUANIAN: (Through interpreter) If the dams don't release water and flood us, even more people will be doomed.

FENG: Whether due to climate change or an accident of nature, heavier rainfall means precarious existence for the 450 million Chinese residents who live along the mighty Yangtze River or its many tributaries. Farmer Ma Youxi recounts the sudden flood in July that enveloped his home in Hekoujie village as he takes his water buffalos out for a swim.

MA YOUXI: (Through interpreter) We only know when the dams release water. When the water enters our homes, there's no heads-up.

FENG: Ma barely rescued his sheep. He points to his herd of water buffalo. Luckily, they float naturally, he says. He then gives a sharp tug, pulling his herd out of the water. It's time to go back inside...

(SOUNDBITE OF RAINFALL)

FENG: ...Because it's raining again.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Hefei, Anhui province. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.