China's Floods:PLA's Largest Operations Ever

Swaran Singh,Research Fellow,IDSA

The combined effects of China's environment degradation, deforestation and water logging in its upper north-eastern regions and the ongoing changes in global weather conditions like the El Nino weather phenomenon—leading to widespread floods in much of the Asian continent, including Russia, the Koreas, Bangladesh and India—resulted in unprecedented torrential rains and storms flooding the Yangtze river and its main tributaries during this summer. To recall, the 3,900-mile-long main Yangtze river, which criss-crosses China's Hubei and Hunan provinces, happens to be world's third longest river. Accordingly, flood control measures in the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze have always been regarded as important components of China's national survival, and successive rulers in China have always considered these as a critical element of their national development and reconstruction. The significance attached to China's Three Gorges Project can be cited to explain the centrality of Yangtze river management in the thinking of China's leaders.1 Statistics from the Yangtze River Water Control Committee show that, through successive operations in China's 5,000-year-long history, embankments with a total length of about 40,000 km have been constructed along the main stream of the Yangtze and its many tributaries to hold the swollen flow in these rivers. These also include a total of 3,500-km-long dykes built along the mainstream of the Yangtze river and, just like the famous China Wall, some of these could be traced back to the very beginning of Chinese civilisation. However, this year's summer rains broke all records and the unprecedented phenomenon of continued rains for two months in China's upper north-eastern regions, resulted in an unprecedented flood situation which has been compared to China's floods during 1954 when the death toll had been 30,000.

The Chinese living in provinces like Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan and Anhui are used to facing floods almost every year, yet, it is the unprecedented scale and spread of this year's floods that turned them into China's national crisis, thus, making the People's Liberation Army (PLA) a key player in the long-drawn flood-fighting operations. Floods this year not only broke all previous records of similar floods during 1954 and 1931 and surpassed all records of excessive flow of water but also engulfed regions which were never considered prone to floods. This unprecedented situation in the upper north-eastern regions not only found the Chinese completely unprepared for flood-fighting but complicated all rescue operations in the downstream south-central regions where floods this year defied even the worst of anticipations.

Initial Estimates on Devastation

Various initial estimates on China's national loss from these floods have broadly concluded that they have halted most of China's developmental work, and, though China's leaders continue to make contrary claims, this slide is likely to persist for the next two to five years. According to China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, this year's floods in China have resulted in the death of over 3,000 people though some independent estimates have put it at about 4,000 or more. Of these, 1,320 deaths have been caused by floods in the Yangtze river alone.2 For many others, of course, these statistics also speak for China's improved flood-fighting arrangements for they have to be seen in the context of the total number of people affected during these floods. The total flood affected population has been reported to be more than 240 million people which constitutes about one-fifth of China's total population and is roughly equal to the total population of the United States. Also, in terms of mere statistics, during the first two months of July and August this year, the floods had inundated 28 provinces and autonomous regions along China's main Yangtze river and its tributaries. This again involves much of the region which has been the main hub of China's development drive during the last two decades. In addition to these casualties, while approximately 14 million people have been marooned and rendered homeless, the total loss in property is estimated to be over $24 billion. The initial estimates on the total loss in terms of property had put the figure between $25 to $36 billion. This obviously did not include the continued manpower-hour loss as also the cost of rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations which is going to take the loss to a much higher figure.

Some of the agencies have already begun to revise their projections for this year. The Office of the Leading Group of Poverty Alleviation and Development under the State Council was the first to admit that they may not be able to meet the goal of helping 10 million people out of poverty this year. This is primarily because most of the flood-stricken areas also happen to be China's state-designated poverty counties where all aid-to-poor projects have either been slowed or ended.3 Pending the enormity of the floods this summer and their continuing after-effects as more information becomes available on the total devastation, these estimates on China's economic slide are expected to be further revised. Amongst the intangible consequences, which will show an impact in the medium and long-term, these floods have resulted in widespread soil erosion. This will have implications for China's foodgrain production in the coming years and this has already been a major problem for China ever since it began importing foodgrain from 1995 onward. This slide also becomes historic considering that China has till now broken all known records by achieving an annual rate of growth of 9.5 per cent during the period of the last 20 years between 1979-1997, with its economic growth reaching as much as 13.5 per cent for 1992. And finally, seen in the backdrop of an year-old financial crisis in East Asia, these floods are also expected to unleash trends towards recession and further provide credibility to the theologists of China's eventual "bubble-burst" which, for them, threatens to shake the already uncertain balance of power amongst the Asian countries.

Special Problems of North-Eastern Region

Speaking of China's internal situation, the problems were also peculiar, to put first things first. To start with, these floods engulfing China's north-eastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Jilin had not been anticipated by the experts. Since both major river systems of this region —the Songhua and Nen rivers—normally never have floods like these, this unprecedented situation took these regions completely unawares and also added to the problems of downstream regions, further compounding the overall rescue operations. Normally, the floods remain confined to China's main south-central region of the Yangtze's basin where both the people and government agencies are better equipped to fight such contingencies. However, excessive flooding in the north-east upstream this year made those preventive measures ineffective as well. Another unique problem facing the ongoing relief and rescue operations in these upper regions is the fast approaching winter. The flood-affected areas of Jilin and Heilongjiang lie at 46 degree latitude, the same as Ottawa in Canada or Portland in Oregon. The winter temperatures can go as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius, making the need for winter clothing as critical as shelter and medicine for millions of homeless people.

Relief and rehabilitation operations may become hardest with cold temperatures turning soggy ground into hard soil thus making it impossible for people to reconstruct their traditional mud-and-straw bricks. Moreover, with the coming of winter, all the massive swathes of water-logged farmland flood water is likely to turn into ice. The Ministry of Civil Affairs has already given instructions to the local governments to ensure that at least a third of the damaged houses are rebuilt before the onset of winter. Under such pressing and harsh conditions, it is only the PLA that can survive, operate and maintain the basic necessities like regular supplies of food, shelter, transport and communications, making it the key operator in all relief and rehabilitation operations. Again, with an advantage of hindsight, it is the PLA alone that had such readily available logistics and disciplined manpower to undertake such large-scale and difficult operations.4

PLA's Largest Operations Ever

According to General Zhang Wannian, who ranks only next to President Jiang Zemin in the Central Military Commission (CMC), this has involved China's "largest ever deployment of its armed forces ever since their War of Liberation during 1945-1949".5 Also, in most cases, it is the PLA troops that have been leading and organising the other agencies' work or providing stop-gap assistance until proper help arrives. There were instances where troops were washed away by the floods while physically trying to slow down the current by making a human dyke to reinforce or plug a hole or break in existing dykes. As regards rescue and rehabilitation operations, apart from other major agencies like the National General Headquarters for Flood Prevention and Drought Control (NGHFPDC), this has been described as the largest single operation ever for China's armed forces. During the initial stages it had included over one million troops of the PLA and other para-military forces, and about two million militiamen and an equal number of other Chinese relief agencies. According to another Xinhua report, at its peak nearly four million Chinese soldiers, armed police, and reserve military personnel took part in the battle against floods in the central and eastern provinces along the Yangtze river under the active command of 44 Generals and over 1,400 Division and Regiment Commanders.6

Though the actual number remains China's state secret, the magnitude of this mobilisation can be gauged from the simple fact that troops from four of the seven Military Regions had been engaged in the flood-fighting operations. These involved forces and equipment from the three services wings—the Army, Navy and Air Force—and all the three major PLA departments as also its other subsidiary agencies.7 By itself it is nothing new for China's armed forces to be the key player in rescue and relief operations against natural or man-made calamities, and one could trace similar instances endlessly.8 There have been many such instances when the PLA troops have been involved in organising medical teams or teaching at make-shift schools or running state transport and communications centres. It is the scale and spread that makes these floods unprecedented. What is unusual is the fact that this seems to have presented the PLA with a unique opportunity to project itself as the people's Army in a real sense and to improve its reputation that had been maligned during the Tiananmen Square operations of 1989.

Also, this exercise has been viewed as an acid-test for the military leadership of President Jiang Zemin. And it makes these operations particularly crucial in understanding the political stability of China's current regime as also an important public relations exercise for the current leadership.9 Moreover, the floods have been unprecedented both in their magnitude as also in their spread and scale, thus demanding exhausting rescue and relief operations that have been dangerous as well as long-drawn. The worst, according to experts, is not yet over and the armed forces have since continued to be involved in the rehabilitation of millions of homeless people. And, with the severe winter fast approaching, these operations are going to become all the more cumbersome and expensive. Debates have also been initiated in various part of China as to how the PLA's success or failure in these operations may effect the PLA's warfighting capabilities, discipline and morale. Any outcome will then also have important repercussions for the stability of the current military and political leadership which continues to be questioned by many.

Implications: Immediate Threats and Long-Term Challenges

The most threatening challenge in the immediate also involves fears of epidemics. Again, it is the PLA troops who have been manning medical teams which were the first to arrive in various flood-stricken areas. The Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) has also since become active. But it depends on the PLA forces for transport and communications in difficult areas which have been inundated by floods. The RCSC was, however, prompt to release a circular calling on its local branches to take preventive measures and it dispatched about 13,000 medical teams with 80,000 medical workers to the various affected areas.10 The central government has allocated the first special grant of $1.2 billion towards these disease control operations.11 Yet, the continuing torrential rains and the rising water-levels upstream mean that in the coming weeks, the lower regions will receive more floods, complicating things further. This also means that continued unsanitary conditions, exposure and a shortage of medicines amongst the rescued millions pose the threat of a massive outbreak of water-borne epidemics. According to China's Minister of Health, Zhang Wenkang, the epidemics control situation in China remains stable, though cases of infectious diseases such as snail fever have been reported and this threat cannot be completely ruled out. According to him, insufficiency of medicines and money have compounded their difficulties.

China's oil sector has been one of the most affected sectors which is going to have repercussions in the short-term period. Floods have swamped parts of China's largest oil field at Daqing in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang. Last year, 2,500 wells of the Daqing oil field alone accounted for nearly half of China's total oil production. This shortage of energy sources is bound to result in a major blow to China's overall industry which has seen an increasing demand for petroleum products during the 1990s. However, one of the Yangtze's tributaries, the Nen river, has swamped more than 1,200 wells at this largest oil field at Daqing, where 527 wells were put out of operation as early as August 1998. Considering that the entire region, including the town of Xingzhan, had come to standstill, with communications, including roads and rail not operating, the restoration work is going to involve both fresh capital investment in infrastructure as also time. Floods have also been hampering oil drilling in another major oil field in neighbouring Jilin province where again rising water levels have led to over 900,000 people being evacuated from Baicheng prefecture alone. Similarly, further downstream, 100,000 residents of nearby Xingzhan and Guqia also had to be evacuated. This flood-stricken north-eastern region of China normally accounts for the bulk of China's total domestic production and supplies which means that the shortage of energy sources is likely to become a major element in China's slowing down growth rate for the coming years. However, Chinaoil authorities have reportedly assured their Japanese buyers that they will be able to re-start very soon and continue with their regular supplies, which shows confidence that they could start operations sooner than expected. According to one report, at the end of the year, these floods may not have affected the annual production of crude oil at Daqing oil fields by more than 2 per cent of its normal expected output for 1998.12

As regards the long-term implications, the dislocation and devastation caused by these floods is going to be far more widespread and deep- rooted that meets the eye. For example, the top soil of about 50 million acres of fertile land has been reportedly washed away, making it less productive. These innocuous things are going to have a major impact on the country's economic prosperity as the majority of China's population still relies on agriculture and lives in the villages. According to officials, soil erosion remains China's top environmental issue as it affects more than one-third of the country—nearly 67,000 hectares of cultivated land and 5 billion tons of top soil are washed away every year. And, two-thirds of China's 50 million poverty-stricken people live in areas prone to erosion, making balanced development impossible.13 Similarly, much of China's commerce and industry has also virtually come to halt in these flood-stricken regions. In more visible terms, however, apart from providing food and shelter for the rescued millions and ensuring that their worsening living conditions do not lead to epidemics, the most urgent tasks in terms of confidence and image-building for China's authorities include ensuring the start of normal teaching at the schools of China's 18 flood-affected provinces and autonomous regions where schools re-opened from the first week of September. A total of 8.46 million students, nearly 45,000 schools and countless books and teaching materials had been affected by these floods, which will have to be rehabilitated in make-shift schools to begin with.14 Again, it is the PLA troops that have been manning these institutions.

Remedial Measures/Strategies

Apart from organising a major mobilisation of China's armed forces and other departments and agencies, the central government had taken a series of immediate austerity measures to save and redirect resources as also make special financial allocations towards relief operations. Though Prime Minister Zhu Rongji has repeatedly assured that China will be able to meet its targets, the central government has also announced austerity measures for various departments in order to free funds for relief efforts. To cite a few examples, the government has placed a ban on purchase of any new cars or mobile phones and imposed restrictions on holding government conferences and on overseas trips. The decision by President Jiang Zemin to postpone his trip to Japan and Russia in September 1998 was partly explained under this logic. As regards long-term preventive strategies, the government announced a ban on water-logging on the Yangtze's upper reaches, announced its plans to reverse the damaging human invasion of its lakes and called for more investment in its longer term flood-control schemes. Starting from September 1, 1998, the province of Sichuan has already enforced the ban on water logging in its Chuanxi Forest Area spanning over 54 counties. It has also been realised that the flatness of the surrounding farmlands along these rivers allows the flood-water to spread for miles, forming lakes between rail and roads, forming dykes. It has become a national priority to evolve an early solution which will have to be seriously pursued. To recall, Hubei province alone had 1,066 lakes in the early 1950s. The number has now come down to 325 and even among these nearly one-third have become much smaller. Silting, along with human encroachment along the Yangtze basin, has also reduced their effectiveness as sponges to soak up floods.

At the same time, some of the remedial measures and strategies had already been put in place in response to China's earlier such experiences. On January 1, 1998, for example, China had commissioned its latest flood control law which gives special powers to provincial governments to declare emergency to deal with a severe flood situation. Many flood-stricken provinces have, as a result, made use of these special powers in mobilising rescue and relief operations, including the PLA forces.15 In the long-term, however, these floods have also raised questions on the need to have a fresh look at China's flood control strategies. One critical debate which has already picked up momentum relates to the future of China's most ambitious hydro-power project of Three Gorges which is being built in the middle reaches of the Yangtze in Hubei. This mammoth project has been projected by the central government as one of the components in China's flood control measures. However, more recently, experts of the International River Network opined that it is not a very effective measure and may actually result in worsening the flooding disasters by creating a false sense of security. Critics have also questioned whether such a dam will be big enough to hold back the Yangtze and its tributaries during similar flood times. According to available estimates, when completed in 2009, this dam will create a lake nearly 400 miles long, displace 1.2 million people and inundate important archaeological sites. But optimists like to point out the fact that the Chinese have been battling against the Yangtze for centuries and only rarely have things gone as far as this. For them, looking at the positive side, such large scale destruction, apart from increasing the state's investment in infrastructure projects—and thus helping China in fighting its reccesionary trends—is also sure to lead to more detailed thinking and some sort of long-term flood-management strategies.

Amongst the other positive by-products, these floods have also resulted in putting, at least temporarily, the "China threat" theories on the back-burner with most commentators projecting how these floods are sure to put breaks on China's rapid rise as the next economic and military global power. Moreover, this has also flashed a sympathy wave for the badly affected Chinese and projected China as a victim. Japan, for example, was the first country to announce an aid package of $1 million for China's southern areas as early as the last week of July 1998. This was followed by America Cares, a US-based organisation, donating drugs, food supplements and clinical equipment worth $75,000 and the American World Children's Fund supplying first-aid materials worth $447,000. The Geneva-based International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent donated $85,000.16 Much more international assistance has continued to pour in ever since. But most of all, this has also witnessed an unprecedented mobilisation by the Chinese people themselves, both at home and abroad, with contributions in cash and kind. Amongst other things, the floods have also witnessed a rise in popular support and has generated a feeling of national unity and pride. According to one report, as many as 88 per cent of Beijing's dwellers have made contributions towards flood relief.


The last time China experienced such a tragedy was in 1954-55 when floods resulted in the loss of over 30,000 lives even though the total number of people affected by floods was only about 30 million. This comparison has also been repeatedly made by China's leaders in order to project the success of the PLA's recent operations which have been described as the PLA's largest single operation ever. This experience also underlines how China has made tremendous improvement in its flood management capabilities during these last four decades as also the promptness on the part of the Chinese authorities, which has been projected as having acted in time. Especially, China's government-controlled media has throughout stressed less on death and destruction and more and more on rescue operations and on the bravery of PLA soldiers. In a way this is the first time since the Tiananmen Square crisis of June 1989 that the PLA troops have been projected nation-wide for making positive contributions towards social welfare and national reconstruction exercises. So much so that President Jiang Zemin had explained his preoccupation with these operations as the main reason for postponing his visit to Russia and Japan which had been scheduled during the first week of September 1998. And finally, these flood-fighting operations by the PLA troops have also been seen as a critical test-case for President Jiang Zemin's military leadership. And, if one is to go by the early reports available, he has been fairly successful in mobilising and commanding the flood-fighting operation by such a large chunk of PLA forces, thereby establishing as also demonstrating his increasing acceptance and support amongst China's armed forces.



1. During the recent reshuffle amongst China's top leaders (15th CPC Congress and 9th NPC Congress), amongst major positions that were being speculated to be offered to ensure the honourable exit of China's number two leader, Li Peng, was the Chairmanship of China's Three Gorges Project.

2. "China Dykes Under Siege," China News, August 28, 1998, p. 5. In the coming months, these estimates are likely to go up as new as well as more detailed information continues to become available.

3. "Floods Challenging China's Anti-Poverty Campaign," News From China, August 19, 1998, p. 35.

4. "PLA Sends More Men and Materials to Flooded Areas," News From China, August 19, 1998, p. 27; "PLA Rushes Ships, Funds, Equipment to Flooded Areas," Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-98-241, August 29, 1998.

5. "China: Floods Spark Biggest Military Deployment Since 1949," Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-98-232, August 20, 1998.

6. "China: Military Playing Important Role in Fighting Floods," Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-98-218, August 6, 1998.

7. "PLA Plays Vital Role in Combating Floods," Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-98-189, July 8, 1998.

8. Zheng Guolian, "CPC Leaders Praise PLA's Role in Fighting Floods," Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-94-123, June 23, 1994.

9. "PLA Circular Urges Political Work in Fighting Floods," Foreign Broadcast Information Service-China-98-218, August 6, 1998.

10. Zhu Baoxia, "Fears on Disease in Flood Regions," China Daily, August 22, 1998, p. 1.

11. Ibid.

12. Jiang Jingen, "Daqing's Daily Oil Output Cut by 2 per cent by Floods," China Daily, August 25, 1998, p. 6.

13. Liang Chao, "Soil Erosion Danger Remains," China Daily, July 6, 1998, p. 1.

14. Matt Pottinger, "PRC Floods Hurt Schools Opening," The China Post, August 28, 1998, p. 5.

15. "China's Flood Control Law Makes Efforts More Effective," News From China, August 12, 1998, p. 43.

16. Jiang Jingen and Zhu Baoxia, "World Aid Flowing to Help Flood Victims," China Daily, July 9, 1998, p. 1.