'The water kept rising': Floods in China's Henan kill dozens, displace hundreds of thousands

The Meteorological bureaus for Henan and provincial capital city Zhengzhou have raised the emergency response to Level 1. PHOTO: AFP
A man wading past a submerged car along a flooded street following heavy rains in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on July 20, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
An aerial view shows a flooded road section following heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, China on July 21, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - Heavy flooding in Henan province in central China has killed dozens people and displaced hundreds of thousands following torrential rain since last Saturday.

Chinese president Xi Jinping on Wednesday (July 21) called for an all-out effort to help those affected, urging the authorities to prioritise residents' safety and property.

The Meteorological bureaus for Henan and provincial capital city Zhengzhou have raised the emergency response to Level 1, the highest level.

The People's Liberation Army and Ministry of Emergency Management dispatched about 5,000 soldiers and firefighters to help out with rescue work.

State-linked tabloid Global Times reported on Thursday that at least 33 people have died from the floods and eight others are missing.

Videos on social media platforms Twitter and Weibo showed commuters in Zhengzhou stuck in an underground subway car, at least waist deep in murky waters. Twelve people died and five others were injured in the incident in the subway.

One of those rescued, with the handle Qijiqiyuan on Weibo, recalled her ordeal that lasted hours.

"The water kept rising... At first, the level was at our knees, then our waist... I started panicking when the water rose to my chest," she wrote in her post.

She described how it appeared as if everyone would run out of air soon. "I heard a woman giving her family members her bank information in case she couldn't make it. I called my mum and told her that I might not be able to make it."

Qijiqiyuan said she was about to faint when rescuers broke open the windows.

"This was my closest encounter with death," she said. "I would have so many regrets if I had died. I would have regretted not meeting so many people and not eating my favourite spicy hotpot. Most of all, I would've regretted not saying 'I love you' to my parents, grandmother and younger brother."

On the streets, cars and motorcycles could be seen floating, while some residents were clinging on to trees to keep their heads above the gushing water.

Flights and inter-city trains stopped running.

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In Zhengzhou, more than 200mm of rain fell in one hour on Tuesday, meteorological data showed. The amount of rainfall between Saturday and Tuesday in the city reached 617.1mm, nearing the annual average of 640.8mm.

More than 30 reservoirs in the province have exceeded their warning levels.

Henan in central China, where the famous Shaolin temple is located, is one of the most densely-populated provinces in the country with 94 million residents.

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Posts with the hashtag, "Torrential rains in Henan", have been read 3.4 billion times on Chinese microblog Weibo and spurred 6.5 million discussions as of 6.30pm on Tuesday, with users in Henan complaining of power and water supply being cut. Food supplies were also reported to have been affected.

Other netizens posted words of encouragement, and offered help.

Flooding also hit other parts of Henan, with landmarks such as the Shaolin temple and Longmen grottoes, a Unesco World Heritage site, shutting temporarily.

People wading through flood waters along a street following heavy rains in Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on July 20, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
People look out at cars sitting in floodwaters after heavy rains hit the city of Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province on July 21, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Earlier this month, China's National Climate Center warned the country to expect more extreme weather events than usual, and predicted poor weather conditions for the rest of the summer.

It estimated rainfall to be 20 to 50 per cent more than usual, and that some major rivers, such as the Yellow River, were likely to swell and cause floods.

The Yellow River, the second longest river in China after the Yangtze, runs through nine provinces, including Henan.

Last year, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, China had its worst floods in decades which left about 280 people dead or missing.

Meteorologists in China blamed Typhoon Yanhua for the unusual rainfall in Henan.

Yanhua, or In Fa as the typhoon is known outside of China, has been approaching Fujian province in south-eastern China, forcing water vapour to be pushed from the sea to Henan based on the typhoon's path and air current flows, they said.

The air flows converge and travel upward when they hit the mountains in Henan, causing rainfall to be concentrated in the region. The rains are expected to ease on Monday.

Citing preliminary studies, weather and climate scientist Associate Professor Koh Tieh-Yong at the Singapore University of Social Sciences said that heavy rainfall has occurred in central China more frequently in recent decades because global warming has expanded the subtropical zone in the East Asia-West Pacific region northwards, thus transporting moisture further north.

"The prolonged and intense rainfall in Henan province this year, when taken together with other heavy rainfall events in the recent decade or two, may be a manifestation of such a northward shift in the summer monsoon rain belt," he said.

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