The white-haired farmer ran barefoot to his fields at 2 a.m. so he could harvest his crops before the floods came. He was one of tens of thousands of villagers whose homes and fields were about to be engulfed as a dam gushed open to prevent further damage downstream.
“We have to think big-picture, think of the greater good,” said the farmer identified as Qiao in a recent local news video from Anhui province. “Isn’t it like this every year?”
Qiao spoke as many rural residents of the Yangtze River floodplains do, accustomed to swelling waters whenever big rains hit. But this year is the worst in decades, with 433 rivers surging above flood control levels since June, 33 of them setting records.
The floods have so far affected more than 54 million people, including 3.7 million displaced and 158 people dead or missing. The surging waters have destroyed 41,000 houses and damaged 368,000 more, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management. Death tolls and battered homes are fewer than in previous years, but displacement and economic loss are far higher.
China’s dams — its primary guard against floods — are coming into question as they face increasing strain. Last week, the government blasted open a dam in Anhui. On the same day, more than 16,000 people were trapped in Guzhen town in the same province as the waters surged 10 feet high and broke through levees.
Fears are intensifying over the gargantuan Three Gorges Dam, where the reservoir has risen 50 feet above the warning level, to its highest point since the dam was completed in 2006.
China has more than 98,000 dams, according to the Ministry of Water Resources, more than any other nation in the world. Many were built in the 1950s and ’60s and suffer from poor maintenance.
“These flood control engineering projects are not a panacea,” said Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs. When torrential rains come, he added, the amount of water concentrated in each reservoir becomes a risk of serious damage, even in small dams.
The heavy storms over the Yangtze River Basin are the result of a western Pacific subtropical high, a pressure system that every summer carries warm air from south to north. The system is abnormally strong this year, said Junyan Liu, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia, but it is not clear if it is caused by climate change.
The flooding, however, is directly linked to man-made problems. China’s over-reliance on dams, excessive construction in low-lying areas, land reclamation in wetlands and lakes, and cities built with poor drainage systems have all exacerbated flood damage.
Those chased from their homes also speak of mismanaged flood systems, lack of government accountability and unequal treatment of the rural poor, who bear most of the flood burden.