In the book, The River at the Centre of the World, Simon Winchester wrote, “In 1788 the Emperor Qianlong had nine iron oxen forged and submerged in the rising river. The act, he declared, should propitiate the guardians of the stream since, according to the cumbersome cosmology of the day, the sea submits to iron, the ox belongs to the earth, and so a herd of oxen should be able to suppress a flood. But it didn't and the floods of the summer of 1788 were devastating—and records from later times consistently show that prayer has rarely managed to halt or slow a rising Chinese river.”
Much has changed in China in the last 300 years but flooding across the Yangtze continues to wreak havoc. The river is called Chang Jiang (长江or long river) within the country and lives up to its name as it is the third-longest in the world. Chinese history is filled with stories of the floods and efforts by rulers of guard against them. In 1931, the floods resulted in the death of 2 million people and affected over one-tenth of the population. This was the main reason behind the Communist Party’s fixation with building thousands of dams to tame the rivers. In more recent history, heavy rains over two months in 1998 led to floods which resulted in the deaths of 3000 people, and a further 223 million were affected.
This year’s flooding however is supposed to be worse than previous instances. Already, 37 million people have been affected and 86 billion yuan has been lost due to the damage of property. CGTN reported that the water level of 433 rivers is above the flood control line, with 33 of them reaching record highs. The Three Gorges Dam saw the third wave of floodwaters of the year crossing warning levels leading to worries about what would happen if the colossal structure is compromised. The Ministry of Emergency Response downgraded the emergency level to Level III (the second-lowest response for flood control) but at the same time, the Ministry of Water Resources reported that the floods across the country continue to be severe.
According to a report by the Ministry of Water Resources, China has the highest number of reservoirs, the highest number of dams and the highest number of ultra-high dams in the whole world. This is because it receives more rainfall than most countries and its rivers—Chang Jiang/Yangtze and the Huang He/Yellow River—are more prone to flooding. If Nehru considered dams the temples of modern India, they were even more highly regarded in China. However, the recent flooding shows that building dams is not enough to control the flooding and may have costs that far outweigh the benefits. In Anhui, government authorities blew up a dam in the Chu tributary to ease flood pressures. The Three Gorges Dam, which is the largest in the world, is one such example where mega infrastructure projects do not live up to their function. It is not just the big dams that are problematic.
Over the last couple of years, China has been exploring more nature-based solutions to tackle flooding. It has carried out flood-plain restoration, and tree planting in small pockets. However, problems in implementations along with continual reclamation of land for agriculture prevent any meaningful change. Over the last couple of years, initiatives like ‘sponge-cities’ designed by Yu Kongjian have aimed at using urban planning to retain and store water. While these are slowly gaining traction, they are not mainstream enough to make a sizeable impact. Further, China’s increasing urbanisation has meant that city-systems are not resilient enough to withstand the damages caused by floods.
Every year, Indian states face severe flooding (such as Assam right now) and have to contend with huge damages to life and property. While the Chinese have not arrived at policy solutions to tackle the problem either, it would do India well to learn from the follies of mega-projects and look to nature-based solutions to solve its problems. Climate change affects the monsoons all over Asia and perhaps here India and China can share their search for answers.
—Hamsini Hariharan is the host of the States of Anarchy podcast. She researches on Chinese politics and policy. The views expressed are personal