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Natural disasters

China battles 'once a century' floods as Typhoon Higos bears down

Three Gorges Dam under relentless pressure from heavy rains

Rescuers use an inflatable boat as they evacuate people from a flooded neighborhood in Neijiang in southwestern China's Sichuan Province on Aug. 18.   © AP

SHANGHAI -- Parts of China were hit by what officials are calling "once in a century" flooding on Tuesday, with a typhoon hurtling toward the country and expected to make landfall during the daytime on Wednesday.

Days of heavy rain have already broken dikes and inundated towns in the central province of Sichuan, state media reported -- triggering fresh warnings around the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, which flows into the Three Gorges Dam.

Authorities in Sichuan on Tuesday raised the emergency alert to Level 1, the highest on a four-level warning scale, after the Qingyi River and its tributaries overflowed.

"More than half of the area of the town has been inundated," China Daily quoted a local official in Zizhong County as saying. "The road leading to the town has been flooded and the town itself has become an isolated island."

Since June, China has been grappling with a series of devastating floods concentrated in the southern and central regions. The water level at the Three Gorges Dam, one of the world's largest, touched a record high of 164.2 meters in late July. The maximum is 175 meters.

Now comes the seventh typhoon of the year, Typhoon Higos, which was generated by a tropical depression in the Philippines and is expected to hit the southern province of Guangdong on Wednesday. The Hong Kong Observatory warned on Tuesday of approaching rough seas and strengthening winds, advising against water sports and fishing in the open ocean.

Authorities are taking flood control measures at dams along the country's longest waterway, the Yangtze. At the Three Gorges Dam, floodwater discharge was raised to 44,000 cu. meters per second, up from 42,200, on Monday in anticipation of higher inflows from upstream rivers.

Water is discharged from the Three Gorges Dam in this 2018 file photo. Heavy rains, with no end in sight, are putting pressure on China's dams.   © Reuters

The relentless flooding has raised concerns about dam safety. "As a result of the massive inflow of water, upstream dams are themselves under increasing stress, as flooding inundated their catchment areas," the Heritage Foundation, a U.S. think tank, said in an Aug. 5 report.

Around 55 million people in 27 of China's 31 provinces have been affected by the weeks of flooding, with at least 158 people killed or missing as of July 28, the Ministry of Emergency Management has said. Direct economic losses from flooding were estimated at 144 billion yuan ($20 billion), 14% higher than the five-year average.

These losses, which are expected to rise in the coming days, are only complicating China's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The country's consumer price index in July rose 2.7% on the year, picking up from 2.5% in June, partly due to pork price increases and the disasters.

"Accelerating food prices and overall CPI inflation leaves the authorities with even less scope" for policy maneuvering, warned Enodo Economics in a research note on Monday.

Despite a better-than-expected economic growth rate of 3.2% in the second quarter, S&P Global Ratings stopped short of classifying China's recovery as self-sustaining.

"China's economic data for July provide more indication the recovery remains unbalanced and reliant on extraordinary policy support," S&P said on Monday.

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