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Heavy rains cause deadly floods in China

July 20, 2021

At least 25 people have died following flash floods in the central Chinese province of Henan. Thousands more have been evacuated after the heaviest rains in decades.

Zhenzhou city, China, July 20. Cars, motorbikes and pedestrians moving along a street despite it being flooded. In the background is a large shopping center.
Dozens of reservoirs reached critical levels as they filled up with rain waterImage: Chinatopix/AP/picture alliance

Heavy rainfall inundated streets and caused major rivers to burst their banks in the central province of Henan on Tuesday.

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) also reported that the storm had damaged the Yihetan dam near the city of Luoyang. They warned that "the dam might collapse at any time" after a 20 meter breach had appeared in the structure.

Infografik Karte China Zhengzhou Flut EN

At least 25 people dead, officials say

Officials in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou say at least 25 people have died with concerns more bodies will be found. The Chinese central government upgraded its flood emergency response from level III to level II on Wednesday due to the crisis.

Local authorities in Henan said thousands of people have been evacuated from the city as a result of the floods.

"As of 7 a.m. on July 21, almost 200,000 people were evacuated in an emergency and 36,000 city residents were affected by the disaster," Zhengzhou city officials said in a statement.

Soldiers have been leading rescue efforts there.

Unusually heavy rain has been falling in the province — twice the size of Austria and with a population of 94 million — since the weekend. 

Dozens of cities have seen massive disruption to transport services. Zhengzhou, which is sirtuated on the Yellow River, had to stop all subway services on Tuesday after 200 millimeters of rain fell in just one hour.

The Guajiaju Dam near Zhengzhou has reportedly collapsed, according to state news agency CGTN.

A video shared widely over social media showed torrents of water cascading through one of the city's subway stations as well as people standing waist-deep in water inside a subway train.

Some 10,000 residents in the province had been relocated to shelters, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the flooding situation in Henan on Wednesday. 

"Some rivers have exceeded monitoring levels, some dams have broken down, while some railway services have stopped and flights cancelled, causing heavy casualties and property losses," the Chinese leader said on state television. "Flood prevention efforts have become very difficult."

Henan is a particularly populous province and a major transport hub. It is also a key base for industry and agriculture.

'More than monsoon rains'

Experts have called the amount of rainfall and flooding "extremely intense." 

 "I can hardly imagine that. It's more than monsoon rains. They can hardly get that out of the tap. It's almost a continuous flood of water from above. No drainage system in the world can manage that," said Dr. Jürgen Jensen, a flood expert at the University of Siegen, regarding the heavy rainfall in the city of Zhengzhou. 

"Over 600 liters in 72 hours. That's over 200 liters per day and continuously over three days," said Dr. Jörg Rechenberg, a water expert at Germany's Federal Environment Agency. "These are, of course, enormous amounts of water," Rechenberg told DW. At that level, cities are reaching the "borders of the adaptation possibilities," he said. 

"You can see what we have to expect in terms of climate and what we have to be prepared for. Also how we have to plan cities in the future."

Summer often brings heavy rain and flooding to the region, but growing cities and changes to land use have increased the costs of flood damage.

Ren Quanniu, a lawyer in Zhengzhou, told DW's William Yang: "When a normal amount of rain in Zhengzhou can already cause water accumulation, the heavy rains from the past few days and the limited capacity of the drainage system can't really efficiently release all the water."

Tourists crowd the Longmen Grottoes (Dragon Gate Grottoes or Longmen Caves) during the National Day holiday in Luoyang city, central China's Henan province, 2 October 2016.
Typically a major crowd-puller, the Longmen Grottoes were shut amid the floodingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Weichao

Fears over key cultural sites

The heavy rain has sparked concern for the Longmen Grottoes — a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring thousand-year-old Buddhist carvings in limestone cliffs.

The world-famous Shaolin Temple in Dengfeng, known for its monks' mastery of martial arts, was also forced to shut.

Since Saturday, over 3,500 weather stations have recorded rainfall over 50 mm. Some 150 stations saw rainfall exceed 250 mm.

The highest amount recorded by the provincial weather bureau in that period was 498 mm of rain in the city of Lushan.

The flooding in central China comes days after catastrophic flooding led to the deaths of over 160 people in western Germany.

New York City was also left with flooded subway stations after being hit by tropical storm Elsa earlier in the month.

Zhengzhou, China: Three cars parked next to wall which has collapsed on top of them. Bricks are strewn across the street.
The rain storms have caused damage, as seen here where part of a wall has collapsedImage: Hou Jianxun/dpa/picture alliance

kmm, ab,wd/rt (Reuters, AP)