BEIJING • Having brought the coronavirus pandemic largely under control, China’s leaders are now struggling with a surge of crippling floods that have killed hundreds of people and displaced millions across the central and south-western parts of the country.
Flooding on the Yangtze River peaked again last week, in Sichuan province and the sprawling metropolis of Chongqing, while the Three Gorges Dam, 450km downstream, reached its highest level since it began holding water in 2003.
This year’s flooding has unfolded not as a single natural disaster, with an enormous loss of life and property, but rather as a slow, merciless series of smaller ones, whose combined toll has steadily mounted even as official reports have focused on the government’s relief efforts.
“The Chinese nation has fought natural disasters for thousands of years, gaining precious experience,” Chinese President Xi Jinping declared last Tuesday after a visit to Anhui, another flooded province downstream from the Three Gorges Dam. “We should continue to fight.”
Mr Xi called China’s disaster relief efforts “a practical test of the leadership and command system of our army”.
He met the relatives of three people who died while fighting floods, and last Wednesday, he addressed officers of the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Armed Police, which have been involved in the relief work.
Public appearances in flood-stricken areas by Mr Xi and Premier Li Keqiang underscored the severity of the crisis, which has delivered another blow to an economy still struggling to rebound from the pandemic.
Mr Li visited Chongqing, where the Yangtze spilled over its banks for the fifth time this year and last Thursday afternoon breached the historical high reached in 1981.
The leaders have tried to reassure people that the government was doing everything it could, but some might have doubts.
“I believe that the Chinese public will question Beijing from this year’s continuous natural and man-made disasters, and even question China’s governance model and its effectiveness,” said Mr Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing.
One resident in Chongqing, in a video of the floods circulating on a popular social media platform, said: “The losses have been heavy for many businesses, fighting the pandemic in the first half of the year and flooding in the second half.”
SOME DOUBTS OVER LEADERSHIP
I believe that the Chinese public will question Beijing from this year’s continuous natural and man-made disasters, and even question China’s governance model and its effectiveness.
MR WU QIANG, an independent political analyst in Beijing.
The floods had already caused at least US$26 billion (S$35.7 billion) in economic losses before last week.
At a recent briefing in Beijing, Mr Zhou Xuewen, secretary-general of China’s flood control headquarters, said that at least 63 million people had been affected and 54,000 homes destroyed.
At least 219 people have died or disappeared, he said.
In Sichuan on Friday, a landslide caused by heavy rain killed at least six other people in a village near Ya’an. Another in the same region left five people missing.
Heavy rain is normal in southern China during the summer, but this year’s has fallen harder and longer than usual, inundating crops and entire communities over the past two months. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr Xi announced a campaign to fight food waste against the backdrop of the flooding, although officials have insisted that there is no impending food crisis.
The heavy rain this year has revived a debate over the Three Gorges Dam, a massive project begun in 1994 that forced the relocation of more than one million people, inundated entire communities and badly damaged the surrounding environment.
The flow of water into the dam’s reservoir reached 75 million litres a second, breaking a record of 61 million litres set just last month, according to a statement from the Ministry of Water Resources.
Although officials said the dam was in no danger, the water level has approached maximum capacity.
Since the floods began in June, officials have repeatedly offered reassurances that the dam could withstand what has been called once-in-a-century flooding.
Some state media reports have gone further, claiming that the dam had almost certainly prevented even worse flooding in cities downstream, including Wuhan, where the Covid-19 pandemic began.