Most floods are known by a place name or geographic feature. In China, flooding is so endemic that only the date is relevant, and 1931 identifies the greatest natural disaster of the 20th century. Fifty million people were affected when all three of China’s greatest rivers combined in a flood of biblical proportions between July and October 1931.
The plains of central China were recovering from a two-year drought when the winter of 1930 brought heavy snowstorms across the region and as far away as Tibet. The spring thaw arrived with heavy rains that culminated in no fewer than seven major cyclones during July alone (against an average of two per year). A final deluge on July 23 brought the month’s rainfall to 0.61 m (2 ft.), and central China began to submerge.
Hanyang, on a promontory where the Yangtze meets the Han River, was the first city to go under. Four dams protecting Wuchang collapsed and water undermined the city walls. Wuhan, known as ‘China’s Chicago’, became ‘China’s Venice’; but since the flood peaked at neighboring Hankou at 16 m (53 ft.) above normal on August 19, it was no joke. The flood grew to an inland sea, spreading back upstream on the Yangtze to Chonqqing, isolating China’s then capital Nanjing on a vast island downstream, filling the huge agricultural plain of Huguang, and finally uniting the Yangtze, the Huai and Huang He (Yellow) rivers across 107,000 sq. km (41,000 sq. mi).
The water moved with lethal speed. A torrent from the Huang He River in the north surged down the ancient imperial Grand Canal, smashing the dykes protecting Goayou Lake north of Suzhou and drowning 200,000 people as they slept. Even after the worst was over, the disaster grew as disease and famine took hold. The world clucked with horror long after the water receded in November. The Chinese ignored everyone and did what they had to do.
What was the flood period: July to November 1931
Where were the 1931 Central China Floods: Throughout the Yangtze, Huai and Huang He (Yellow) river basins, central China
What was the 1931 Central China Floods death toll: Estimates vary widely because figures for individual rivers have been confused with totals for all three. The consensus is not less than three to four million dead, and 50 to 80 million left homeless. Millions more died from their injuries or diseases arising from the floods (or both). Accuracy in assessing the carnage is not helped by often careless official Chinese attitudes of the day. One report from a local bigwig dismissed local casualties as including ‘30,000 rickshaw coolie refugees and 100,000 wharf coolie refugees’ and therefore beneath his dignity. Such officials did nothing to suppress infanticide, cannibalism or the selling of wives and daughters for food.
You should know: Plans for flood control systems on the Yangtze, Huai and Huang He (Yellow) rivers were abandoned as China went to war for some 15 years after 1931. The Three Gorges Dam scheme on the Yangtze, proposed in the 1930s and completed in 2009, is likely to protect one group of cities only at the expense of another.