The approach towards flood management and control in China is comprehensive and complex. This is due to the fact that China has a huge population and its flood prone areas — in the middle and down stream areas of it seven major rivers — are densely populated. Over many centuries low-lying depressions, lakes and the flood plains have been reclaimed by the settlers to live on and grow crops due to pressure of population growth of adjacent areas. The use of land in this way has resulted in significant reductions in the storage and retention capacity of river basins and consequently greatly increased the likelihood of major flooding. [Source: China: Flood Management by Zhang Hai-lun,World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Global Water Partnership (GWP) Associated Programme on Flood Management, June 6, 2019]

The main flood management strategies in China are: 1) storing flood-water in up stream areas as much as possible; 2) protecting flood prone areas in middle and down stream reaches of major rivers against ordinary floods; 3) using levees and storage and detention basins for handling the extraordinary floods; and 4) employing flood preparedness and flood fighting before and during flood season and having a well organized emergency management system in place.

flood mitigation strategies are grouped under three main areas: 1) soil and water conservation, 2) building of flood control systems and 3) flood proofing. Since the 1970s major efforts have been made in soil and water conservation, particularly in up and mid-stream mountainous regions. Among the focus of policies and guidelines related to this issue have been zoning and slope surface and gully control.

Flood Control Infrastructure in China

In regards to flood control systems, about 85,000 reservoirs of different sizes have been constructed in upstream reaches of rivers. Most of them have been built for for flood control integrated with irrigation and power generation. On top of this a levee system with 250,000 kilometers of levees built in the middle and downstream reaches of rivers has been constructed, mainly to control the ordinary floods ( with a 10~20 years return period) and protect 34,000 square kilometers of farmland and 400 million people. [Source: China: Flood Management by Zhang Hai-lun,World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Global Water Partnership (GWP) Associated Programme on Flood Management, June 6, 2019]

Historically levees have been the mainstay of the flood control system, with lakes and low valleys — of which there are about 100 along the major rivers — take in the excessive flood waters produced is by large floods. Another important tool to reduce flood disasters is the use of , large pumping systems. These have made significant contribution in areas where natural drainage is limited in the flood seasons. These pumps can also be used to suck up and store water that can be used to irrigate land during dry season.

Traditionally, in view of the frequent flood disasters in China’s history, emphasis was placed on flood control over water conservation. During flood seasons reservoirs kept water at flood control level (lower than usual so they could absorb extra water in the event of a flood) in order to ensure the safety of the hydraulic structure. However, since early 1980s water shortages have become major issues in China and pressure mainly from the hydro-power generation and irrigation sectors to maintain water supplies above flood control level during the flood season. A research program was set up in 2002 to address these issues.

The Flood Proofing and Drought Defying Headquarters (FPDDHQ) has been instrumental in combating floods in China. Its hydrological information and flood forecasting system plays a crucial role in transmitting the information to the public in a timely fashion. As of 1992, the hydrological network and flooding monitoring system relied on 3,172 hydrological stations — which measured rainfall, water level and discharge — and 1,149 gauge stations and 15,368 rain gauges.

In the past water resources development projects and the flood control programmes were mainly funded by the central government. However, since the 1980s a new approach in the fund raising has been promoted in order to secure stable resources for these activities, trying to mobilise funds from multiple sources through loans, bonds, stocks and foundations; investment is also encouraged from enterprises, private sector, foreign investors and the peasants in the form of labour contribution.

History of Flood Control in China

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “River engineering is a general term for government-initiated projects in regulating river courses, such as the construction of dams, the excavation of irrigation channels, the reinforcement of dikes, and river dredging. The infrastructures to be constructed would include dams, dikes, fascines, gates, culverts, slopes, and life-saving piles. As for maintenance, the infrastructures would undergo minor repair every three years, medium repair every five years, and major repair every ten years. Routine maintenance was implemented on an annual basis as well. Moreover, urgent repair would be made in case of emergency. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: From the sixth century B.C. on, “the governments of the various states began to devote increased attention to massive public works. Among these were large-scale dams and canals, which improved agricultural productivity, transportation for commerce, and the ability to move troops in times of war. The earliest of these projects that can be dated with certainty is the construction in stages of a massive canal, undertaken by the government of Wu, a southeastern state on the north bank of the lower Yangzi, whose population was considered non-Chinese until midway through the Spring and Autumn period.” [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Flood Control Laws and Regulations

Major laws and regulations in the water sector have been enacted since the 1980s include: 1) the "Water Law" (1988) that was revised in 2002; 2) the "Law of Flood Control" (1997); 3) the "Law of Soil and Water Conservation" (1991); and 4) administrative regulations like the "Regulation of Flood Proofing", "Regulation of River Course Management" and "Guide to Safety Building of Flood Storage and Detention Basins". [Source: China: Flood Management by Zhang Hai-lun,World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Global Water Partnership (GWP) Associated Programme on Flood Management, June 6, 2019]

The Law of Flood Control (1997) among others stipulates that: 1) every community unit and individual has the obligation to protect flood-prone places project and to participate flood fighting; 2) the governments at different levels are responsible for organization of flood fighting and relief work after flood disasters; 3) flood control plans should be integrated basin plans involving other sectors and coordinated with the land-use plans; 4) flood control and management should be implemented in coordination and cooperation with local parties and interests; 5) in flood prone areas and flood affected area without protection should be clearly identified and delineated; and 6) policies and management rules should be formulated and implemented as soon as the flood plan is approved.

The polices for implemented water legislation in include: 1) Water development plans, which should emphasize multipurpose use and be take into consideration livelihoods, development and the environment; 2) Water resources development programs should be integrated into the national and social development plan; 3) water management system should integrate river basin management and the administrative regions (mainly provinces) that share a basin; 4) Construction of any building or form of infrastructure, or any activity within river channel management areas is prohibited.

The central government has stipulated specific policies for implementation the flood control laws, comprising: 1) Restoration of reclaimed slope area, lake area and the flood prone areas to natural forest and lakes with government subsidy; 2) Relocation of people of these reclaimed areas and economic compensation and tax exemption for the settlers; and 3) Restraining the economic development and control of the population growth in flood prone areas, especially in frequently flooded areas.

After devastating flood struck the Yangtze basin in late 1990s a review of flood management strategies was undertaken that placed emphasis on land use planning that took into account better the population issue in flood prone areas and viewed floods as natural phenomenon which cannot be eliminated or be totally brought under control. It was determined that the reclamation and use of lakes, flood plains and slope land in up-stream areas had reduced the storage and discharge capacity of floodwater in these areas. There flood control plans were difficult to put into practice and the conflicts between the local interest and overall river basin management led to inefficient flood operation during the flood periods. This resulted in the modification of the flood management strategies.

Specific policies to cope with soil and water loss in mountainous and hilly areas include: 1) Integrated regulation and management of small catchments; 2) Establishment of a contract system for regulation and management of small catchment in soil eroded areas; 3) Reinforcement of prevention of soil erosion; and 4) Establishment of a market oriented mechanism in soil and water conservation.

Flood Management Organizations

The Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) is in charge of a unified management of water resources in China. There are seven major River Basin Commissions, which are the branches of the MWR that coordinate water administration in the river basins. They play an important role in bring together all the parties impacted by floods to coordinate flood and drought protection and mediate water disputes. The institutional system of the MWR is set up incorporate the highest levels down to local water resources stations and township level water administration. The MWR is often well representated in rural areas and plays an important role linking rural communities with the government. Water stations act not only as a technical body but also as serve as consultation body for rural people on local water issues. [Source: China: Flood Management by Zhang Hai-lun,World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and Global Water Partnership (GWP) Associated Programme on Flood Management, June 6, 2019]

Water-related affairs within a province are the responsibility of the provincial governments. Local government water resources bureaus are responsible for planning, development and management of water resources within their jurisdictions. Local water resources management agencies comprise four levels: 1) provincial, 2) prefecture, 3) country and 4) village (town).

The "Flood Proofing and Drought Defying Headquarters" (FPDDHQ) is vital in determining where and how flood-control resources should be allocated and deployed. It main responsibilities are: 1) establishing a flood forecasting and warning system; 2) formulating flood operation schemes and conducting real time operations; 3) mobilizing all parties concerned, including the armed forces and local people, to fight against flooding; 4) preparing and supplying materials including transportation facilities for flood fighting. During flood events, many governmental agencies are involved and share a responsibility in accordance to their mandates. Coordination during a flood is handled by the FFDDHQS.

Poor Flood Management in China

Flooding in China is directly linked to man-made problems. Alice Su wrote in the Los Angeles Times: 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. [Source: Alice Su, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2020]

“The choice of where to let waters out and whom to flood highlights inequalities. China tends to prioritize protection of cities — “more populous and economically important regions,” Ma said — at the cost of villagers, mostly farmers or migrant workers. “China’s hukou system ties every citizen’s access to healthcare, education and other social services to their place of origin. Villagers who move to cities for work cannot truly settle in urban areas and tend to send money back to their hometown. Flooding villages and small towns costs less overall than flooding a city, but it means that those with less cushion for survival are hit hardest.

Flood expert Yu Kongjian told the Los Angeles Times that by restoring riverbanks, wetlands and lakes, soil and vegetation could absorb and keep water locally. “I am not against dams and hydrological structures, but I am opposed to over-reliance on human flood control, these ‘gray’ infrastructures that destroy the green and natural system,” Yu said. “Just like a person, if you stay alive only by relying on a ventilator and injections, you are fragile. What will happen when the machines break? The human will face the risk of death. Cities are the same.” Building dams and binding rivers with concrete are methods China learned from the West. But many ecologists there have also begun advocating for fewer dams and giving space back to nature. “Man cannot win against nature,” Yu said. “Everything man-made is destined to break one day. The ruins of Rome tell us that.”

Are China’s Dams Up to the Task for of Flood Control?

Alice Su wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “China's dams — its primary guard against floods — are coming into question as they face increasing strain. In July 2020, 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. [Source: Alice Su, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2020]

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.

Much of the worst damage in 2020's floods, said Ma, has come from broken dams or dikes, or from intentional release of reservoir waters without sufficient warning or protection of people downstream. Yet dams have been a point of pride for the Communist Party. The Three Gorges Dam in particular has been touted by the Chinese government as a symbol of national prestige, despite controversies over the mass displacement, environmental destruction, pollution, landslides and earthquake risks it has caused.

“Dams built to withstand floods that happen “once every thousand years” are now facing water levels within 100, or 50 or 10 years of their construction, Yu said. No dam lasts forever, he added. It is not a question of whether but when each one ends — and who potentially pays the price.

Sponge Cities: the Answer to China’s Flood Problems?

Tessa Wong of the BBC wrote: “Yu Kongjian can remember the day he nearly died in the river. Swollen with rain, the White Sand Creek had flooded the rice terraces in Yu's farming commune in China. Yu, just 10 then, ran excitedly to the river's edge. Suddenly, the earth beneath his feet collapsed, sweeping him into the floodwaters in one terrifying instant. But banks of willows and reeds slowed the river's flow, allowing Yu to grab the vegetation and pull himself out. "I am sure that if the river was like it is today, smoothened with concrete flood walls, I would have drowned," he tells the BBC.[Source:Tessa Wong - BBC News, November 11, 2021]

“It was a defining moment that would impact not only his life, but the rest of China as well. One of China's most prominent urban design thinkers and Dean of the prestigious Peking University's college of architecture and landscape, Yu Kongjian is the man behind the sponge city concept of managing floods that is being rolled out in scores of Chinese cities. It is an idea he believes other places can adopt - even as some raise questions of whether, in the face of more extreme floods linked to climate change, sponge cities can truly work. In 2015, following President Xi Jinping's endorsement, the government announced a multi-million yuan plan and an ambitious goal: by 2030, 80 percent of China's municipal areas must have elements of a sponge city and recycle at least 70 percent of rainfall.

“What if a flood could be something we embrace rather than fear? This is the central idea of Prof Yu's sponge city. Conventional flood water management often involves building pipes or drains to carry away water as swiftly as possible, or reinforcing river banks with concrete to ensure they do not overflow. The Zhengzhou flood in 2021, Yu says, was a classic example. The city had paved over its ponds, so not enough water was retained upstream when the rain began. The main river had been channelled into concrete drains, causing water flow to speed up "like a flushed toilet", he says. Important infrastructure such as hospitals were built on low-lying land. "A sponge city could handle any flood — if it doesn't, it's not a sponge city. It has to be resilient," he says.

Rather than carrying away water as swiftly as possible a sponge city does the opposite, seeking instead to soak up rainfall and slow down surface run-off. “It tries to do it in three areas. 1) The first is at the source, where just like a sponge with many holes, a city tries to contain water with many ponds. 2) The second is through the flow, where instead of trying to channel water away quickly in straight lines, meandering rives with vegetation or wetlands slow water down - just like in the creek that saved his life. This has the added benefit of creating green spaces, parks and animal habitats, and purifying the surface run-off with plants removing polluting toxins and nutrients. 3) The third is the sink, where the water empties out to a river, lake or sea. Prof Yu advocates relinquishing this land and avoiding construction in low-lying areas. "You cannot fight the water, you have to let it go," he says.

“While similar concepts exist elsewhere, the sponge city is notable for using natural processes to solve the city's problems, says sustainable design expert Dr Nirmal Kishnani of the National University of Singapore. Much of the concept is influenced by ancient farming techniques Prof Yu learnt growing up in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, such as storing rainwater in ponds for crops. It has won Prof Yu and his landscaping firm Turenscape many awards. "Nobody would drown, not even in the monsoon season. We just lived with the water. We adapted to the water when the floods came," he says.

“But with heavier storms is the sponge city really the answer? Some experts are not sure. "Sponge cities may only be good for mild or small rainstorms, but with the very extreme weather we are seeing now, we still need to combine it with infrastructure such as drains, pipes and tanks," says flood management expert Faith Chan of the University of Nottingham Ningbo. He also points out that for many dense cities where space is a premium, it may be difficult to implement some of Yu's ideas such as providing land for floodplains.

Yellow River Dams and Flood Control

Dr. Robert Eno wrote of Indiana University wrote: “Dams had been a feature of the Chinese landscape for centuries, particularly in the flood plain of the Yellow River, where catastrophic floods periodically laid waste to vast regions of farming. From the late Spring and Autumn period on, the increases in corvée labor available for massive public works projects led states to address this sort of problem more comprehensively than in the past – not, for the most part, cooperatively, but rather as one aspect of increasing political competition. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Along the lower reaches of the Yellow River, the state of Qi, which extended east from the geographically lower southeast bank, constructed a great dike about eight miles to the east, greatly reducing flood damage. The states of Zhao and Wei, which shared the northwest bank and which had not been much troubled by floods, suddenly found themselves awash in the backwaters created by the dike in Qi, and the constructed their own dikes at a similar distance from the river channel. As a result, flood damage was constrained to a strip about fifteen miles wide. The rich silt deposited there by floods actually made this land highly fertile, and farmers exploited the land very actively, only slightly discouraged by the fact that every decade or two, catastrophic floods destroyed their crops and drowned them in great numbers.” /+/

South-North Water Diversion Project

The South-North Water Diversion Project, is a hugely ambitious, 50-year project that aims to solve the country's worsening drought problems with three giant channels that will divert part of the Yangtze river towards the Yellow River thirsty cities and factories around Beijing. More than twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam and three times longer than the railway to Tibet, the $68 billion project aims to bring 50 billion cubic meters of water a year — equivalent to the annual flow of the Yellow River — from relatively well-watered southern China to water-starved northern China along three routes in western, central and eastern China. The main beneficiaries will be Beijing, the industrial hub of Tianjin and Jiangsu and Shandong provinces in the east.

First proposed in 1952, the scheme was approved by Mao Zedong, who said it was fine for the south to “lend a little water”, but until recently the government has not had the money or technical ability to go ahead. Work began in December 2002. The project involve building three canals — two of them more than 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) long — that will link four major rivers: the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, Huige River and Haihe River.

The South-North Water Transfer Project is widely supported the political and scientific community, arguing that water is desperately needed in the north, but is opposed by archeologists, farmers, environmentalist and people who live along the construction route. Between 500,000 and 1 million residents are expected to be displaced and the primary recipients of the water will be city dwellers and industries not farmers. Important archeological sites, such as fossil beds where dinosaur eggs and 800,000-year-old human remains were found and buildings from the Ming Dynasty will be submerged. Some worry that bringing polluted water from the Yangtze River to the north will poison China’s breadbasket.

Image Sources: Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; CNTO; Xindua, ESWIN. Telegraph, Envirnonmental News; NASA, Nature Conservancy

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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