Written by Jennifer Brill, Staff Writer, and Doug Rekenthaler, Managing Editor, DisasterRelief.org
It has become almost an annual occurrence: China's mighty Yangtze River swells under torrential rains, then surges downstream, flooding dozens of communities and leaving thousands homeless. But this year has been different....
Across Asia, uncommonly heavy rains have left large swaths of city and cropland alike under water. While the Yangtze -- the world's third largest river -- understandably receives a great deal of media attention, other areas of China, South Korea, Bangladesh, Mongolia, and even Russia have been plagued this season by heavy rains and flooding. Herewith, an update on Asia's long, wet summer.
For the fifth time this summer, the Yangtze is hurling a massive flood crest toward the tens of millions of people who make their homes along its central and lower stretches. Earlier this week, a fourth flood crest was thwarted by millions of weary soldiers and civilians drafted into the flood-fighting campaign. More important, weakened levees that have withstood a nearly constant assault by the river largely remained intact.
Although several secondary levees have failed -- some because they were surrendered to the river in an orchestrated campaign to flood farmland and take pressure off larger downstream dikes -- authorities worry that the major levees protecting large industrial cities like Wuhan could fail. The result of such a failure would be catastrophic, threatening the lives of millions and causing hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- in economic losses.
To date, more than 2,000 people have been killed and 14 million left homeless by the floods, which began in early June when seasonal rains arrived earlier and heavier than usual. The actual death toll is believed to be much higher, but a combination of chaotic conditions that make casualty counting difficult, and a belief by many that the Chinese government is purposely downplaying the death rate have left many questioning the accuracy of the "official" numbers.
While officials compare this season's Yangtze floods with the record deluge of 1954 when 30,000 were killed, there is no question that the floods hammering the northeastern section of the country are "the worst ever."
Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia are suffering through the worst floods in their history, and flood control officials have warned that the situation is going to become worse before it gets better. The Nen River has reached historic levels and breached dikes in many areas. Heavy surges in neighboring tributaries that feed the Nen are expected to push it even higher. Officials in the region said "ulta-torrential rains" have plagued the area for weeks.
The China Economic Times this week reported that at least 760,000 people in the northeast have been affected by the floods. The newspaper said the Arun and Yalu rivers breached dikes in 67 places, sending flood waters raging through villages and sweeping people to their deaths. No official casualty figures were available.
The same storm system that plagued China also migrated over South Korea, delivering as much as 40 inches of rain to some areas in less than a week. More than 250 people have been killed by the heavy rains and floods, most of them from landslides.
Eight people were killed on Wednesday when new rains triggered landslides and sent streams spilling over their banks. As much as 16 inches of rain fell on central South Korea on Wednesday, and together with the more than three feet of rain that fell last week, the country has received nearly its entire annual allotment of rain in the span of two weeks.
Nearly 200 people were killed from flooding in Seoul and central South Korea last week, including three U.S. servicemen. More than 140,000 people have been driven from their homes, and overall property damage is estimated at about $2 billion.
As in China, new rains and flooding have hampered rescue efforts in South Korea. Chinese and South Korean military and police personnel also have been ordered to deal harshly with looters, a growing problem as some business areas remain partially submerged by flood waters.
South Korea's Communist alter ego, North Korea, suffered from similar heavy floods in 1995 but has received relatively little rain this year. North Korea continues to suffer from the ravages of a three-year famine.
In light of the floods, South Korea's plans for a festival commemorating the 53rd anniversary of liberation from Japanese rule recently was shelved and its $1.11 million budget reallocated to flood victims.
More than 117,500 acres of South Korean farmland have been inundated by flood waters, railroads and roadways damaged or closed, utilities knocked out in many areas, and tens of thousands of homes abandoned.
Further hampering relief efforts, flood waters raging through a military depot swept away tons of ammunition, including landmines. Although some of the materiel has been recovered, soldiers have been put to work using minesweeping equipment in downstream areas north and east of Kyonggi province.
At least 350 people have been killed in Bangladesh this summer, the result of exceptionally heavy monsoon rains that have flooded many areas of the delta-nation. Although flooding is no stranger to the country, heavier-than-usual rains have led to massive flooding in some areas, impacting 15 million people and damaging 160,000 homes.
Thirty-seven of Bangladesh's 64 districts have been affected by the flooding, the worst since 1988. The torrential rains arrived after weeks of abnormally dry weather, which left the ground hard and unable to absorb much moisture. The resulting flash floods killed scores of people and damaged or destroyed crops.
A major concern for Bangladesh authorities -- indeed, for much of Asia -- are the waterborne diseases that proliferate in flooded areas where clean water and food are virtually nonexistent. In Bangladesh, at least 30,000 people are at risk of dysentery. In China and South Korea, teams of medical personnel have raced into flooded areas to provide medicine and clean water.
International relief agencies are requesting assistance to provide basic foods, and resources for making repairs to houses and the infrastructure in order to enable the most vulnerable to survive the current crisis. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) launched an international appeal for $US 1.7 million (2.7 million Swiss francs) for flood victims.
Flood relief operations have already been started by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), which has a network of staff and volunteers in each of the country's 64 districts, 37 of whom are affected by the rising waters. During August and September, the BDRCS will distribute emergency food rations to 500,000 flood victims
"The food rations will last a family for two weeks," said Ali Hassan Quoreshi, Secretary General of BDRCS. "The food stocks of the poorest of the poor tend to be very low and receiving this food may mean the difference between life and death for many of them." In addition, 60 mobile health teams will be organized to provide desperately needed medical services.
"We have certainly not yet seen the worst of these floods," said Bjorn Eder, head of the IFRC delegation in Bangladesh, "and while the needs are great at the moment they will only increase as the days pass."