By Gang Chen

China’s Deadly Floods in 2016: A Stress Test for Government Capacity

Aug. 10, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In the summer of 2016, China was stricken by devastating floods that affected both the northern and southern parts of the country. After more than 30 years of development in the reform era, the country has strengthened its state capacity in managing such disasters caused by extreme climatic conditions. However, under the centralized model of disaster management dominated by state actors including various government departments and state-run organizations at the central level as well as the armed forces, weaknesses in local disaster management departments have been revealed in the various floods-hit areas.

Flooding from torrential summer rains since June 2016, which has plagued eleven provinces downstream of the Yangtze River and several provinces and municipalities in northern China, has been the worst China has suffered since 2010, with over 400 people dead nationwide.

Floods and draughts are very much a part of China’s rural life and, in fact, part of China’s history, so much so that an eminent German-American historian Karl Wittfogel (1957) dubbed China as a kind of “hydraulic civilization.” Fearing a repeat of the disastrous flooding of 1998, the heaviest since 1954 that led to a series of levee collapses and killed more than 4,150 people, the government over the past 18 years has made strenuous efforts to improve flood-control facilities. China has put in place a specific bureaucracy to cope with severe floods and droughts, with an inter-agency organization called the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters designated to oversee and coordinate related authorities like the Ministry of Water Resources, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Ministry of Agriculture, and the China Meteorological Administration (Chen, 2012, p. 138). Usually a Vice-Premier is appointed to head the Headquarters.

The three floods of 1998, 2010 and 2016 respectively share many similarities: most of the torrential downpours were concentrated in areas along the Yangtze River, the world’s third longest, from June to August; there was abnormal weather associated with ocean-atmosphere phenomena; heavy rainfall spread to other parts of China and caused flooding along rivers such as the Huai, Hai and Yellow Rivers; the scale of flooding alarmed the leadership into mobilizing millions of people to battle the floods.

Like its crisis management of the floods of 1998 and 2010, the Chinese government responded to the floods quickly and with uncharacteristic openness. People saw on television the Premier or Vice Premier coordinating flood-control and rescue work in disaster-ravaged regions, and the mobilization of numerous soldiers and local people to shore up the dykes and deliver food and water to the homeless. As a continental state frequently struck by natural calamities, China now has the enhanced state capacity as well as sufficient equipment and resources to keep losses and casualties at tolerable levels. Today neither flood nor drought would bring about food shortages in the highly-industrialized country because of developed food storage facilities and modern transportation systems.

However, the floods did expose the long-existing issue of insufficient local disaster resilience and raised environmental concerns about overdevelopment, including issues like fast-paced urbanization, deforestation, and controversial large-scale hydropower projects. During the floods, big cities like Wuhan, Nanjing, Tianjin, and even the capital Beijing were water-logged due to the lack of effective urban drainage systems. Ignoring underground public infrastructure, Chinese mayors have been obsessed with grand construction projects above ground, which may take up too much land for rainwater to be absorbed or run off.

People’s resilience to natural disasters is fundamentally local, which involves the strengths a local government and community can develop to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters (Ross, 2014, p. 1). Since disaster is always a local problem, an axiomatic principle is that the remedy in terms of protection and relief must be applied at the grassroots level of local communities and administrations (Alexander, 2006, p. 11). Local capacity-building and solutions to disaster management therefore are essential for effective risk management, disaster response, and recovery efforts, but in today’s interconnected and bureaucracy-laden disaster management field, local disaster resilience is often constrained by limited fiscal and human resources, unengaged citizens, and conflicting local government priorities (Ross, 2014, p. 2). Although major rivers have been well dredged since the 1998 floods, water resource projects along China’s small and medium-sized rivers have relatively weak flood control capabilities, which have resulted in huge losses during the current summer floods. The central government has planned to intensify investment in water conservancy projects, especially in harnessing small- and medium-sized rivers, preventing and controlling mountain torrents, and reinforcing local reservoirs. Local governments today shoulder about 30 percent of China’s total fiscal expenditure on disaster management, which is much higher than the ratio in the pre-1994 period (Chen, 2016, p. 67). Yet they are still being pressured to pay more for disaster relief so as to ease the fiscal burden on the central government.

Rising civic demand for more participation in the rescue and relief efforts is still suppressed, although people have been engaging in political actions and have found a new sense of self, community, and empowerment in the disasters.

Apart from that problem, funds allocated by central or upper-level governments now go directly to the local finance bureau, while the local bureau of civil affairs and other disaster-related departments are not guaranteed to get a fair share of their disaster mitigation jobs (Lo and Tang, 2007, p. 48). This system requires the local bureau of civil affairs to develop an annual budget, which must be approved by the finance bureaus and incorporated into the regional budget before being submitted for parliamentary approval by the local people’s congress. This system to some extent has played a positive role in curbing corruption and increasing transparency, but for some disaster relief officials, the system also has a negative impact on the bureau of civil affairs because financial power is now concentrated at the finance bureau, and it takes more time and effort for the bureau of civil affairs to request funding. From this perspective, this system has made local disaster management departments more financially dependent upon the local government.

Natural disasters, especially meteorological events such as droughts, floods and storms, have become more frequent and severe since the 1990s and the trend is likely to continue in China. The perceived rise in extreme weather events in China has coincided with the global trend towards increased weather-related disasters. Of all types of natural disasters, meteorological disasters caused by monsoons are the most frequent. China’s major river basins are well within the monsoon zone of the Pacific, with over 50 percent of annual precipitation in most areas and concentrated in the four months of June to September. Sometimes more than 70 percent of regional rainfall is concentrated in the two months of July and August. While two-thirds of China’s land is threatened by floods and tropical typhoons ravaging coastal areas seven times a year on average, hinterland droughts occur almost every year in the dry seasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Yangtze River has received the most attention from flood controllers due to the increased frequency of inundations particularly in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River. Some experts attribute the severity of Yangtze River floods in modern days to improper human activities in the river valley where one third of China’s total population now lives. The following factors have been singled out for public attention:

1.Destruction of vegetation has led to soil erosion in the upper reaches

2.Land reclamation and siltation has reduced lake sizes, which have resulted in a decrease in flood storage capacity

3.Construction of levees has caused flood levels to rise due to restricted flood discharge   capacity (Yin and Li, 2001, pp. 105-109).

Just like in previous floods, the state media has played up the heroic role of the People’s Liberation Army in places from Hubei to Hebei. In the era of social media, however, the Party has failed to impress on the people that it has made all-out efforts to deal with the flood disaster, as the most salient civil society dynamics driven by cyberspace activism and civic consciousness have been ignored by state actors. Rising civic demand for more participation in the rescue and relief efforts is still suppressed by the regime, although ordinary people have been engaging in a broad range of political actions and have found a new sense of self, community, and empowerment in the disasters.


Alexander, D. (2006). Globalization of disaster: Trends, problems and dilemmas.

Journal of International Affairs, 59(2), 1–22.

Chen, G. (2012). China’s management of natural disasters: organizations and norms. In J. H. Chung (Ed.), China’s Crisis Management. London: Routledge, pp. 130148.

Chen, G. (2016). The Politics of Disaster Management in China. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lo, C. W.-H., & Tang, S.-Y. (2007). Institutional reform, economic changes, and local environmental management in China: The case of Guangdong Province. In N. T. Carter & A. P. J. Mol (Eds.), Environmental Governance in China. London: Routledge.

Ross, A. D. (2014). Local Disaster Resilience: Administrative and Political Perspectives.

New York: Routledge.

Wittfogel, K. A. (1957). Oriental Despotism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Yin, H. and Li, C. (2001). Human impact on floods and flood disasters on the Yangtze River. Geomorphology, 41(23), 105109.

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