Aerial photo taken on July 6, 2020 shows the flooded Baiguoshu Village in Sankou Town of Huangshan City, east China's Anhui Province. (Photo by Shi Yalei/Xinhua)

OPINION-The Politics of Flood Control in China

The year 2020 is a tremendous challenge to the governance of China not only because of the outbreak of Covid-19 but also the ongoing floods in many provinces, counties, towns and villages along the Yangtze River, including Anhui, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Chongqing. 

Since the flood season began in June, the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources reported on July 13 that 433 rivers witnessed water levels rising beyond the warning levels, affecting many lakes such as Dongting, Poyang and Taihu. About 33 rivers envisaged water levels risen to their highest levels.

The Ministry of Emergency Management revealed that rainfall had broken its record since 1961, leading to the death of 141 citizens and economic losses of 60 billion yuan.

In comparison with the floods that killed 431 people in 1991, 4,150 people in 1998 and 164 people 2016, the number of deaths in the ongoing floods is kept at a level temporarily lower than the 2016 situation. The 2020 flooding are affecting the livelihood of 37,890,000 people, influencing the upper and lower streams of the Yangtze River, including Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. 

The 1998 floods were regarded as the most serious ones in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), affecting 2.23 billion people, killing 4,150 citizens and leading to economic losses of 25.5 billion yuan.

As early as May 19, President Xi Jinping requested in the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) meeting that all the government departments concerned must shoulder the responsibility of preventing, monitoring and preparing for the upcoming floods. He stressed that provincial and local governments had to control Covid-19 on the one hand and to enhance flood-controlling measures on the other. President Xi urged all the provincial and local authorities to repair flood-prevention work, increase logistical supplies, enhance food storage, and organize simulation exercises and training to protect the lives of ordinary citizens. 

Water gushes out from spillways at Xin’an River Reservoir in east China’s Zhejiang Province, July 8, 2020. (Xinhua/Weng Xinyang)

After the floods occurred in many places along the Yangtze River in June, the PSC meeting on June 28 was characterized by President Xi’s instruction that provincial and local governments must implement the responsibility system in flood control, and that they must combine flood supervision with not only the organization of flood relief but also the evacuation of flood victims to safe places. Adopting multiple measures, provincial and local authorities were urged to lay down the foundation of reconstruction work.

When the flooding became serious, President Xi during the PSC meeting on July 12 demanded that all party secretaries and government leaders must go down to the grassroots levels to comprehend the flooding situation, and that they should become front-line cadres leading the ordinary people to control floods, to build up temporary levees, to strengthen existing dykes and dams, and to assist the victims. He emphasized the importance of mobilizing party cadres, the People’s Liberation Army (PAP), the People’s Armed Police (PAP), and the need for all departments at various levels to coordinate among themselves effectively.

Five days later, on July 17, President Xi again in the PSC meeting appealed to need for all provincial and local authorities to strengthen flood control work, to consolidate logistical supplies and to prepare for the worst-case scenarios. 

While the central government’s leadership remains decisive and prompt, there are several features in the current politics of controlling flooding in China.

First and foremost, the seriousness of flooding questions the performance of local governments in flood prevention and control. Mainland meteorologist Luo Jingjie has regarded climate change and the rising water levels as the main factors shaping the ongoing floods. Moreover, a former chief engineer of the Ministry of Water Resources, Cheng Xiaotao, pointed to the problems that more waters were released from the dams at the upper streams, and that there was a lack of experiences in managing water levels in various rivers and streams. 

Local people wade through floodwater after bursting of a river in Beledweyne, central Somalia, May 17, 2020. (Xinhua/Hassan Bashi)

Cheng added that many rivers and streams belong to the jurisdictions of different local governments and administrative precincts, which traditionally have their vested interests and which lack sufficient coordination and cooperation in dealing with flood-prevention work. According to Cheng, the upper streams of Yangtze River lacked large-scale reservoirs to control water flows, while the dykes located at the middle and lower rivers are made up of mud. The current floods exert tremendous pressure on the lower rivers and streams, where the water levels have been exacerbated by sustained heavy rainfalls. He suggested that all local governments should enhance monitoring and coordination work.

In recent years, urbanization has been proceeding so quickly in many places along the Yangtze River that it is not matched by a corresponding improvement of the water drainage systems, which remain old and outdated in many regions. Hence, the current floods impact 6 million people in Jiangxi and endanger the city of Wuhan. 

An engineer from Taiwan, Li Hongyuan, pointed out that while the Three Gorges Dam remains solid and crucial, the capacity of underground water drainage systems in many places remains inadequate, and that this predicament may take 20 to 30 years to improve.

Second, the mass media have remained very weak in covering the ongoing floods, unlike the 2008 Sichuan earthquake during which the media played a crucial role in making the developments transparent and helping the rescue and relief work. Critics have observed that the People’s Daily only carried two reports on the floods in June and President Xi’s remarks on June 28 were a turning point that propelled the mainland media to be much bolder in covering the floods. 

The relatively weak mass media in China is perhaps a reflection of its oscillating role from boldness to cautiousness in reporting Covid-19 from January to the present. After all, the media have been ordered to follow the line of the Chinese Communist Party loyally. Since July, the mainland social media have seen more reports of the flooding developments. Overall, the politically tight atmosphere in China is perhaps an obstacle to the increased awareness of the citizens and groups in coping with flood control.

Third, the PLA and PAP were swiftly mobilized to rescue the flood victims and to consolidate levees in many places. From July 9 to 15, at least 4,800 members of the air force were sent to different places, carrying sandbags to rebuild dykes and providing more logistical supplies. About 24,000 soldiers from the PLA and PAP were dispatched to assist flood-controlling work in Jiangxi province. Many PLA soldiers from Army Groups 81, 82 and 83 were mobilized to help various cities in Anhui and Hubei provinces. Some of them used rafts to go into submerged homes to rescue citizens, while the Communist Youth League was mobilized to rebuild and strengthen the levees at Hubei’s Huangshi city where a lake witnessed an unprecedented 20 meters of water level. On July 14, State Councillor Wang Yong, who was also the chairman of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, underlined the importance of strict precautions against dikes and reservoirs breaches as well as waterlogging. Clearly, full-scale mobilization could be seen in many provinces after President Xi’s major speech on June 28.

Fourth, the deployment of high technology to deal with flood detection and control can be seen. Drones were used to detect water levels of rivers and reservoirs; special tractors were used to release 3,000 cubic meters of water per hour from flooding areas; high-speed “robot” boats were utilized to rescue flood victims and each of them can accommodate four persons; 5G instrument has been combined with Virtual Reality so that the headquarters monitoring floods can comprehend the situation of flooding and rescue work; and new mobile naval bridges have been used to transport engineering equipment and facilities to repair breached dykes and levees. The Chinese satellites have been used to take clear pictures of different places plagued by flooding, enabling the authorities to control the floods and rescue citizens more effectively and efficiently.

In short, while the central government in Beijing has been reacting quickly to the flooding situation in various places, the main weakness of China’s battle against seasonal floods remains the coordination and efforts of local governments. The relative weakness of local governance was revealed in the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020, but it has perhaps been exposed again in the ongoing challenge to prevent, minimize and control the extensive floods.