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Floods devastate China’s Yangtze basin as army mobilizes massive relief effort

Community workers and volunteers deliver food and supplies Aug. 19 to flood-affected residents in Neijiang, in China’s Sichuan province. (AFP/Getty Images)

Wang Nianyin was still asleep on the second floor of his Lulu Cat Cafe on Wednesday morning when water seeped onto the picturesque stone streets outside.

The waters around Chongqing — a city where the Jialing River meets the arcing Yangtze — always rise with the summer rains. But never like this.

By midday, Wang and scores of businesses had evacuated. By afternoon, parts of their district, the ancient porcelain-crafting village of Ciqikou, was five feet underwater. Riverside highways vanished. Cresting waves threatened to reach elevated rail tracks.

As China enters a third month of devastating flooding, it is grappling with catastrophic damage that has spread from the central provinces to the upper Yangtze — a region that includes Chongqing, a city of 30 million — and Sichuan province, in the high-altitude southwest. So far, 63 million people have been affected and 15 million acres of farmland destroyed — an area the size of West Virginia. In official statements, the government has placed the floods on the same level as the coronavirus pandemic when describing shocks to China this year.

Earlier this week, the central broadcaster showed China’s top two leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, arriving from Beijing to inspect preparations and issue instructions ahead of a potential sixth wave of flooding that officials in Chongqing warn could strike in September if rainfall does not relent.

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Although the People’s Liberation Army regularly provides disaster relief for floods and earthquakes, the remarks by Xi, who has called the situation grim, and the sheer scale of the mobilization underscored the gravity of the crisis and the urgency of the all-hands response.

The Chinese military has mobilized 1.2 million troops across 17 provinces to evacuate about 170,000 residents and reinforce embankments and roads, according to state media. On Thursday, Yangtze water levels in Chongqing hit a record, as did the flood peak at the Three Gorges Dam, where dam operators pledged to stand on “wartime footing.”

“This flood battle is a practical test of the leadership and command system of our army, and the army’s combat readiness and ability to perform the tasks,” Xi, dressed in olive drab, told officers Thursday in Anhui province, which is also suffering heavy losses.

In Chongqing, Wang and other residents said much of Ciqikou was still underwater on Friday, and there was no electricity throughout the neighborhood.

Wang said he couldn’t wade back to his cafe to check its condition. Down the street, the owner of the Wangjianglou restaurant, which typically boasts of its location overlooking the Jialing River, said the first floor of his eatery was still five feet underwater. The restaurant owner, who spoke by telephone on the condition of anonymity, said he didn’t bother to save his restaurant.

“It’s pointless to move things outdoors,” he fumed. “The street is flooded, too.”

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Zhang Faxing, a hydrologist at Sichuan University, said Sichuan is used to summer floods but it’s highly unusual to see a disaster of this scale, and this level of rainfall well into August.

“We should stay on alert for further flooding in upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze until mid-September,” Zhang said. “Extreme weather means more uncertainty for all those who live along major rivers in the south, but the possibility of more heavy rains in China’s inland areas remains quite small.”

For China, the story of battling yearly floods is the story of the nation itself: King Yu, according to the Chinese origin myth, overcame a great flood 4,000 years ago to found the first prehistoric dynasty.

But government officials have warned that increasingly extreme weather and flooding are worsening with climate change. In 2015, a joint report by several Chinese ministries said the country was particularly vulnerable to drought, flooding and sea-level rise. A number of Chinese papers, including the latest annual report by the China Meteorological Administration, have noted an increase in the frequency of extreme rainfall in the past 60 years.

Intense reclamation and development of wetland along the Yangtze River has also hampered the basin’s ability to absorb floods, experts say.

Anders Levermann, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, said he estimated that China’s economic losses resulting from flooding will rise 80 percent in the next decades as a result of more extreme rainfall caused by climate change.

“It’s really a basic physical law,” he said.

Coming on the heels of the coronavirus outbreak in January, the floods are wreaking another round of economic disruption. The Yangtze, Asia’s longest river, connects Shanghai on the Pacific coast with Wuhan and Chongqing. Its basin accounts for about 45 percent of China’s economic output and a third of its population.

So far, the Chinese government has touted its flood control measures as significantly more advanced compared with even five years ago and predicted a relatively limited impact of $15 billion in direct losses. But those estimates have been steadily inching up in recent weeks.

On China’s stock exchanges, a flurry of notices to shareholders this week showed a glimpse of the havoc in southern Sichuan: Leshan Shenghe, a publicly traded rare earth producer; Tongwei, one of the world’s leading silicon producers; and a photovoltaic cell maker have all blamed flooded factories for their output grinding to a halt.

Although the floods began in some areas as early as March, they have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and U.S.-China conflict, which continues to dominate social media chatter. The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, began mentioning the floods on social media in June with lighthearted headlines, using repeated rain emoji and labeling an aerial photograph of a post-flood landscape “idyllic.”

In Jiangxi, another hard-hit area, provincial officials also tried to put a positive spin on the situation in recent weeks as they described the floods as “not a thoroughly bad thing” in a Weibo post that was condemned by citizens.

Zhang Feng, a Beijing-based media critic who blogs on Tencent, noted that the coverage was all drone footage shot from afar.

“There is no room for suffering,” Zhang wrote. “The images of floods sweeping away homes, pigs and humans drowning, corpses rotting and garbage spread all over after the floods will never be captured by drones in bird’s-eye views.”

Wang Yuan, Lyric Li and Liu Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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