Deadly China floods called worst in decade

Flooding from torrential summer rains, which has killed at least 700 people and displaced millions, is the worst China has suffered in more than a decade, officials said Wednesday.

The rains, which began in May after a severe drought in southern China, are inundating cities and villages throughout the country. Well over half of China’s provinces are now enduring monsoon-like downpours, flooding and landslides.

“Compared to the same period for the last 10 years, losses from the flood are much higher this year,” said Liu Ning, secretary-general of the government’s flood prevention department, in a press conference Wednesday in Beijing.

Flood season plagues China every summer, but this year’s is likely to be the most devastating since 1998, when flooding killed about 4,150 people.

“What’s different about this rainfall is that it’s very concentrated in the areas that it has hit, and it has fallen in a short period of time. That’s why in some areas and rivers the amount of rain has reached historic levels,” said Kuang Yaoqiu, a professor at the Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry.

The most recent deaths were in the northwestern province of Shaanxi, where 41 people had been killed and 107 others reported missing since the weekend. In the northeastern provinces of Liaoning and Jilin, areas usually less affected, heavy rain has also caused damage. On Monday, in the Liaoning county of Tieling, 14 inches of rain fell over the span of 24 hours, causing a dam to break and flooding an entire village.

Tropical storm Chanthu was expected to hit the southern provinces of Hainan and Guangdong on Thursday.

Kuang blamed the heavy rains this year on the lower sea temperatures of a La Niña phenomenon, and predicted they would continue at least until the end of August.

But some Chinese officials say the situation is already improving.

State television reported Wednesday that water levels in a tributary of the Yangtze River near the southwestern city of Chongqing had dropped almost 16 feet. The Yangtze is the country’s longest river, and would engulf hundreds of villages along its course if it were to flood. Water levels for the rest of the river will continue falling over the next few days, Chinese analysts say.

The Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze, is holding back some of the flood waters. When the dam was built, officials called the giant reservoir so impenetrable it would withstand the kind of flood that comes once in 10,000 years.

Over the course of rainy seasons after the dam was completed, officials started scaling back their claims and attempting to lower expectations, using qualifiers such as “one in a thousand” and “one in a hundred” to describe the scale of floods the dam could resist.

Kuo is with The Times’ Beijing Bureau. Tommy Yang in the bureau contributed to this report.