Massive floods threaten tens of millions as intense rains batter southern China

Multiple days of heavy rains have lashed southern China, unleashing deadly floods and threatening to upend the lives of tens of millions of people as rescuers rush to evacuate residents trapped by rising waters.

Guangdong province, an economic powerhouse home to 127 million people, has seen widespread flooding that has forced more than 110,000 people to be relocated, state media reported, citing the local government.

The floods have killed at least four people in Guangdong, including a rescue worker, state news agency Xinhua reported Monday. At least 10 people remain missing, it added.

Since April 16, sustained torrential rains have pounded the Pearl River Delta, China’s manufacturing heartland and one of the country’s most populated regions, with four weather stations in Guangdong registering record rainfall for April.

The Pearl River basin is subject to annual flooding from April to September, but the region has faced more intense rainstorms and severe floods in recent years as scientists warn that the climate crisis will amplify extreme weather, making it deadlier and more frequent.

Houses submerged in floodwaters in Qingyuan, Guangdong province, on April 22, 2024. - Tingshu Wang/Reuters
Houses submerged in floodwaters in Qingyuan, Guangdong province, on April 22, 2024. - Tingshu Wang/Reuters

“Judging from the flood control situation in recent years, climate warming and temperature rise have intensified, and extreme heavy rainfall occurs every year, leading to torrential rains and floods,” Yin Zhijie, chief hydrological forecaster at the Ministry of Water Resources, told state-run outlet The Paper.

Last year, China encountered “more intense and extreme” downpours during the flood season than in previous years, with 72 national weather stations registering record daily rainfall and 346 stations breaking monthly records, according to the China Meteorological Administration.

Since last week, at least 44 rivers in the Pearl River basin have swelled above the warning line, threatening to burst their banks, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

On the Bei River, which flows into the Pearl River, authorities have warned of a “once a century” flood expected to reach 5.8 meters (19 feet) above the warning limit. The tributary had already burst its banks on April 8, marking the earliest arrival of its annual flood season since records began in 1998, according to Guangdong authorities.

The “massive flood” at the Bei River is the earliest on record to hit China in the highest category of a four-tier classification system, according to Yin, the forecaster. Floods of this magnitude usually occur after late June, he said.

Aerial footage aired by CCTV on the weekend showed villages inundated by murky flood waters, with only roofs and treetops visible in some places.

In Guangning county, Zhaoqing city, footage shared by residents on short video app Douyin shows muddy brown water gushing through village streets and sweeping away cars. In Shaoguan, a man is seen pushing his scooter through shoulder-high flood waters. And in Qingyuan city, social media footage shows strong gales and rain felling trees and flipping over motorcycles.

The heavy downpours have also triggered landslides near Shaoguan city in the province’s mountainous north, injuring six people, according to Xinhua.

Authorities raised the flood control emergency response for the Pearl River Delta to level 2 on Sunday – the second highest in a four-tier system.

Many cities have suspended schools and hundreds of flights have been canceled in the metropolises of Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

More than 80 houses have either collapsed or been severely damaged, resulting in a direct economic loss of nearly 140 million yuan ($20 million), Xinhua reported.

Further heavy rainfall is expected to hit Guangdong this week, according to the province’s Meteorological Bureau.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

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