Flooding on the Yangtze River

21 Feb

In China, over seventy per cent of the total economic losses from natural disasters come from flooding and meteorological disasters. Each year, the total economic loss from these disasters equals, on average, three to five per cent of China’s GDP. The Yangtze River, which is the third longest river in Asia, is important to the social and economic geography of China, and is particularly vulnerable to flooding. There is an ongoing debate as to the extent to which the impacts of flooding on this river have been influenced by humans, and this blog will examine some of these causes.

It is very clear that there has been rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in China in recent decades, because of the enhanced economic growth (Jacques, 2009). This has led both to bigger and more frequent floods, as well as increased economic losses from them. An example of the severity of flooding being increased at the expense of economic growth occurred in May 1992, when the government of the Hunan Province removed one kilometre of dikes in order to allow for new agricultural land. This resulted in 80,000 hectares of farmland and 700,000 people losing their protection from flooding.

Linked to urbanisation is population growth. It is inevitable that a higher population density, as a result of increased migration to Chinese urban areas, will lead to the likelihood of more deaths in the event of a natural disaster. Additionally, the growing population pressures mean that people are forced to settle on vulnerable flood plains and hillsides, including the most flood prone areas along the Yangtze River. A flood on the Yangtze River in 1998 led to 3700 deaths, at least 15 million people being displaced and economic losses of over US$26 billion. The flood prone area in the Yangtze River basin accounts for only 8 per cent of total national territory, but is inhabited by nearly 50 per cent of the population. Also, the area contributes 66 per cent to the national total of gross industrial and agricultural product. Consequently, this area holds very important social and economic value, and so the increased risk of flooding is a major concern.

A further factor which contributes to flooding on the Yangtze River is environmental degradation as a result of human activities. Many activities, such as deforestation, excessive land reclamation, mining in mountainous areas, wetland destruction and large-scale road construction have resulted in the degradation of soil and water in Yangtze Basin, leading to an increased risk of flooding and landslides. Since the 1950s, the soil erosion rate on the Yangtze River has risen by 40-50%. In particular, the building of the Three Gorges Dam has had an impact, as the dam has created higher water levels (Tullos et al. 2009). Additionally, over 550 people died in the 1998 floods as a result of mudslides and, as well as heavy rain, excessive logging of hillsides was to blame for this.

However, it is of course not just human-implemented factors which cause the flooding of the Yangtze River; increased human influence is simply enhancing the impacts of the flooding which is, as is the case with all flooding, physically caused to some extent. The main cause of the seasonal flooding of Yangtze River is the Asian Monsoon Climate System, which is inherent to the climate system as a result of internal variability; it is in La Nina and moderate El Nino years that the flooding is on a larger scale (Chowdhury, 2003). Despite this, it is clear that, as is argued by Yin and Li (2001), the increasing impacts of flooding are being caused by primarily human factors. Therefore, this poses the question as to whether China has pursued capitalist accumulation in the right way in the Yangtze River Basin?  


Chowdhury, J.U. 2003, ‘Flood management in the Ganges tidal plain’, International Workshop on Natural Hazards in Coastal Areas, Japan, Paper D-1, pp. 27-33.

Jacques, M. 2009, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order, Penguin Books.

Tullos, D., Tilt, B. and Reidy Liermann, C. 2009, ‘Introduction to the special issue: Understanding and linking the biophysical, socioeconomic and geopolitical effects of dams’, Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. S203-S207.

Yin, H. and Li. C 2001, ‘Human impacts on floods and flood disasters on the Yangtze River’, Geomorphology, vol. 41, no. 2-3, pp. 105-109.


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