Lives lost. Cities swept away. Houses gone. Farmland destroyed. This is the situation across China. And it’s all because of water.

In the last two months, China has been the victim of freak weather events, massive rainfalls, and now a typhoon. Flooding across 26 provinces (more than half of China) has left hundreds dead and impacted the lives of millions. The raw power of the water attacking the nation is frightening.

The scale of the crisis

Almost two months of unrelenting water has impacted the lives of 31 million people, according to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. The most recent updates from the ministry indicate 186 people have died, 45 are still missing, and 2 million have been relocated. Those numbers are expected to rise.

Government figures show the tally of the destruction: 2.7 million hectares (6.7M acres) of cropland have been submerged and 56,000 homes have been destroyed. The total damage estimate is more than 67.1 billion RMB ($10 billion). To truly understand how tragic this is situation is, you have to see it. Fortunately, there are plenty of videos showing how dire it is.

A two-month deluge

Flooding is relatively common in parts of China. In early June, flooding in coastal Guangdong province was severe but still within normal annual expectations.

Pretty soon the storms and accumulated rainfall turned from normal to terrifying. Flooding in Guangxi, a more inland province more than 550 kilometers away from Guangdong, was an early indication of the national scale of this crisis.

It didn’t take long for the rains and resulting mudslides to start claiming lives. Citizen shot videos started appearing across social media bringing the devastation terrifyingly close. Like this one that shows a small town crumbling and people being swept away. (Warning: Graphic imagery)

Cities and farms washed away

By mid-June flooding was impacting nearly every coastal province and areas bordering the Yangtze River Basin. The Yangtze supports one of China’s most fertile and productive agricultural regions. A region that quickly flooded, destroying a main national food source.

Farms and cities quickly fell to the rising waters. Neither fancy developments nor poorer urban areas were a match for the rising tide of destruction.

China is dealing with more than just water

During the last two months the world’s second-largest economy contended with more than just water. Rare tornadoes have wreaked havoc in many different areas, including this one that struck south of the capital, Beijing about two weeks ago.

Last week, in another freak weather incident, Hong Kong was bombarded by literally thousands of lightning strikes.

And if China’s residents weren’t facing enough problems, authorities in Anhui warned that 92 alligators escaped from a farm (link in Chinese). The government helpfully told local media that the surrounding residents were not panicking.

What’s behind China’s destruction?

Weather experts attribute the severe weather in China, and across Asia (notably including Japan, which is facing its own flooding), to El Niño. The buildup of warm water along the equatorial region of the Pacific Ocean is changing regional weather patterns.

The result in China is a 21% increase in national and a 27% increase in the Yangtze River Basin.  

Critics inside and outside of China are blaming the scale of destruction on more than just changing weather patterns. Specifically, they are targeting overdevelopment and corruption.

China has been developing and urbanizing at a record pace. During the nation’s meteoric economic development, safe construction and urban planning has been a constant problem. The widespread loss of homes and buildings (as seen in the video below) during the flooding is in part due to over development. Critics claim development projects are often put in historically flood-vulnerable areas with minimal safety precautions.

Wuhan, one of the cities covered in water since the beginning of this crisis, used to be called the city of 100 lakes. Unfortunately, since the Communist government’s takeover of China in 1949, 45 of the metropolis’ 127 lakes have been filled in for development projects.

“Lakes are natural sinks. When there are heavy rains, the water that once would have been expelled into lakes pools up in residential areas,” Wuhan environmental activist Ke Zhiqiang told the Financial Review.

Backlash at the government

Poor urban planning and construction are also getting blamed. In 2013, Wuhan announced a 13 billion RMB ($2 billion) plan to upgrade the city’s drainage system. Local residents say the drainage system has completely failed during the flood.

“I just want to know how that $13 billion was spent,” wrote a university student from Wuhan named Wang Xinyu in a letter to city authorities that quickly spread on Chinese social media. “Three years have passed, but there has been no solution.”

Criticism of the Chinese government has also gone international. The New York Times’ China-based reporter Chris Buckley joined the trend of mocking Chinese leaders’ penchant for active-looking photo ops.

For the record, that photo features China’s second-most powerful politician, Premier Li Keqiang. By no means is China the only nation with leaders who fall into this photo-op trap.

Somehow it’s still getting worse

Over the weekend, Typhoon Nepartak swept across Taiwan before slamming into the eastern coast of the China mainland. The storm left at least three dead in Taiwan. The damage in China simply added to the huge tally of the last two months.

Coastal levies struggled and dams broke. In Hunan, local authorities were forced to try extreme measures to plug a gap in a collapsing dam.

Yes, they did mean to drive the truck straight into the river. The desperate measure apparently worked to stem the tide in the near term.

The long term impact

At the moment, China is focused on short-term survival. Rescue crews, the military and communities are searching for survivors and working to stem the still rising waters.

Mid-range impacts are already starting to manifest. Food prices in flood stricken areas are starting to rise. Food inflation should unfortunately continue as the nation grapples with the lost crop yield and repair its transportation networks. On the macro scale, the already slowing national economy will inevitably slow even further during the summer and fall months.

Though long term some are claiming this crisis could help the national economy. Regional financial analysts Nomura Holdings Inc. published a report predicting rebuilding efforts will boost the national economy, “as post-flood construction may boost aggregate demand. We believe industrial production growth will likely rebound in September after a weak July and August.” Presumably this is small comfort to the families of the deceased, the millions of people displaced, and the farmers and urbanites whose livelihood may never recover.

Water may truly define China’s next decade.


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