International Rivers Network

"After the Floods: Water Control on the Yangtze"



November 1999
Report from the U.S. Embassy

After two consecutive years of damaging floods, including the worst of this century in 1998, the Chinese Central Government is committing RMB 10 billion (US$ 1.2 billion) a year over the next five years to flood control and prevention measures in the Yangtze River Basin. In addition to strengthening dikes and embankments and dredging the river channel, these funds will be used for reforestation, soil conservation and relocation of people out of flood-prone areas. But regional water authorities are staking their long-term strategy on the gargantuan and controversial Three Gorges Dam, scheduled for completion in 2009. The Yangtze River Commission is interested in expanding cooperation with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Yangtze River Commission

The Changjiang (Yangtze) Water Resources Commission in Wuhan, Hubei province, is empowered by the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources to comprehensively plan, harness, develop, exploit and manage the water resources of the Yangtze River Basin. Established in 1950 as the Yangtze Valley Planning Office (YVPO), it has been the driving force over the decades behind the Three Gorges project and the proposed south-north water transfer project.

Lessons of the 98-99 floods

Throughout its history, China has been susceptible to flood (and drought) disasters due to high inter-annual rainfall variability. From june through august 1998 ñ when China suffered its most damaging floods of this century ñ rainfall in the Yangtze Valley was 37.5 percent above normal. However, the total flow volume of the river was even greater in the 1954 flood. But flood stages in 1998 were much higher. The Commission attributes this to the following factors:

 Other analysts have highlighted additional ecological factors contributing to the 1998 floods:

Rainfall in 1999 was not remarkably high, having been exceeded numerous times in recent decades. But flooding was again substantial. Seepage through the foundations of the dikes ñ weakened by the previous yearís floods and by years of inattention ñ was a major contributing factor. Recent inspections determined that the majority of dikes had internal structural defects, including seepage and perforations. Locals have dubbed them "bean curd chaff dikes."

The 32-character plan

After two consecutive years of damaging floods, water authorities ñ and their political bosses ñ came to realize a more earnest and comprehensive approach to flood prevention was needed. The central government announced an eight-part flood-control strategy dubbed the "32-character policy plan" (two groups of four phrases, each expressed in the popular four-character form). The central government is providing RMB 10 billion (US$ 1.2 billion) a year over five years through a special bond issue to implement the plan. Provincial and local governments are also contributing funds.

About a fourth of the central government money will be used to establish a special fund for correcting hidden defects in the dikes (e.g. seepage, structural weakness). But substantial funding is also being allocated for long-term prevention measures, including alternative development (providing alternative sources of livelihood for those currently engaged in unsustainable, flood-inducing activities such as logging). Yangtze commission officials acknowledged to estoff that simply continuing to build bigger and better dikes, as the Chinese have been doing for more than a thousand years, is ultimately futile.

The 32-character plan comprises the following measures:

Implementation proceeding

The Economic Times reported November 1 that 36 projects were in progress under the special fund for repairing hidden dike defects, of which five involved improvements to the river channel and the rest were dike improvements. Farmers are now prohibited from farming on hillsides with slopes steeper than 25 degrees, unless the slopes are properly terraced, although it is not clear how this ban is being enforced. The Commission is overseeing reforestation efforts in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, although the effect of upstream deforestation on downriver flooding is debated (Commission subscribes to the view that upstream deforestation has important local effects but contributes little to downstream flooding).

Obstacles -- too many people, not enough land

As with many problems in China, flood prevention must confront the brutal population arithmetic. The central government strategy calls for moving people out of the flood diversion/retention areas. The Yangtze River Commission reports that 960,000 people have been relocated in Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi and Anhui provinces since 1998. This is nearly as many people as are expected to be relocated for the construction of the Three Gorges dam. The Commission recently announced plans to relocate another 700,000 by next summer. However, most of those relocated so far had been living within the actual river channel, inside the floodwalls. Another 5 million live in the retention areas. Since there is less than an acre (4-5 mu) of cultivated land per farming family to go around in the region, evicting farmers from the retention areas is simply not feasible. There is no unoccupied space to relocate them to. Instead, the commission plans to permit farming there in normal years while providing secure locations for farmers to retreat to in flood years ñ still a challenging task.

Gambling on Three Gorges

The Commission sees the above measures as only partial solutions to the flooding problem. Their long-term strategy rests on expanding water storage capacity in the Yangtze Basin, primarily by finishing the Three Gorges Dam. But many Chinese and foreign experts think the downstream flood-control benefits of Three Gorges will be limited, since the dam sits upstream from several large tributaries. Critics in the late 1980s argued that it would be more effective and economical ñ and less costly in human and ecological terms ñ to build a series of smaller dams on the tributaries (see the 1989 book Yangtze! Yangtze! by Dai Qing, available in English through Earthscan publications). But since then-premier Li Peng broke ground on the project in 1994, critical voices have been largely muted, although current premier Zhu Rongji has raised concerns about quality-control problems (see report: "Three Gorges project on the defensive?" on this website).

The Commissionís brochure states that Three Gorges is "the major measure to integratedly eliminate the flood disasters in the middle and lower reaches." However, in his speech at a conference on water resource management in Tucson in April, a Commission official said that the storage capacity for flood regulation of completed and planned projects in the Yangtze Basin was "limited" and "unsuitable for the increasing requirements for flood control." This would seem to include Three Gorges, contradicting the Commissionís brochure. In any case, Commission officials say they ultimately envision a cascading series of dams along the Yangtzeís main channel, as well as additional dams on the tributaries.

Opportunities for cooperation

Yangtze River Commission officials are interested developing a more long-term, continuing relationship with U.S. Government agencies. They say cooperation to date has been largely episodic. They are interested in learning in a more comprehensive way from the decades of U.S. experience with water management and flood control. They seem particularly fascinated with the New Deal era, unfazed by modern analyses critical of U.S. flood control policies of that time.

The Commission would like to to send more young engineers to the United States for training and enhance cooperation in environmental protection technology, water quality monitoring, surveying and planning. They are also interested in learning more about U.S. anti-seepage techniques, noting that California experienced dike washout problems in 1997 similar to those experienced along the Yangtze in 1998-99.


Although Chinaís senior political leaders have spun the flood disasters of 1998-99 as a heroic popular victory against the forces of nature, the water-management professionals appear keenly aware of the need to take stronger preventive measures. At an October 1998 hydrology conference, officials from downstream Jiangsu province said Jiangsu escaped the 1998 flooding because of major flood control investments undertaken earlier, in response to major flooding there in 1991. Of course, Jiangsu is one of Chinaís relatively developed coastal provinces and has more wherewithal than poorer, inland provinces to cope with the flood challenge. This annecdote thus, in addition to proving the adage about an ounce of prevention, illustrates the striking differences in the capacities of local governments in China and the difficulty the center faces in addressing problems and imposing its will in the hinterland. Not surprisingly, senior central government officials, led by Premier Zhu, are complaining that the additional funds appropriated for flood control projects since 1998 have been mismanaged, misdirected and misused.

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