boccaletti6_XinhuaDu Huaju via Getty Images_threegorgesdamchinariver Xinhua/Du Huaju via Getty Images

China’s Great Wall of Water

With water levels rising and the Three Gorges Dam reservoir reaching capacity, China has assumed a war footing in preparation for a potentially catastrophic flooding crisis in the Yangtze River Basin. Though its flood-control systems most likely won't fail completely, the mere possibility that they could is a wake-up call.

LONDON – The East Asian monsoon is pummeling China this summer. As of late July, flood alerts had been issued for 433 rivers, thousands of homes and businesses had been destroyed, and millions of people were on the verge of becoming homeless. The water level of Poyang Lake, China’s largest freshwater lake, has risen to a record-breaking 22.6 meters (74 feet), prompting authorities in the eastern province of Jiangxi (population: 45 million) to issue “wartime” measures. Chinese citizens have not been threatened with devastation on this scale in more than 20 years, and this is likely just the beginning.

Destructive floods are not new to China, which has been reckoning with its powerful rivers for thousands of years. Historically, political stability has often depended on governments’ ability to tame them. The last time China was crippled by catastrophic floods, in 1998, more than 3,000 people died, 15 million were left homeless, and economic losses reached $24 billion. Reflecting the floods’ political importance, the Chinese government rushed to implement new measures – from infrastructure investment to land-use reforms – to prevent such a disaster from recurring.

China has since emerged as the world’s second-largest economy, owing to its pursuit of modernization and advanced industrialization. One of the principal factors in its success has been its extraordinary stock of river infrastructure. Over the last 20 years, China’s river systems have been manipulated in unprecedented ways not only to avoid a repeat of 1998, but also to generate enough hydropower to sustain industrialization. As a result, water flowing in the Yangtze River today encounters a globally unprecedented cascade of dams and infrastructure.

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