Chang River Breaks Through Its Main Bank

On August 7, 1998, the Chang (Yangtze) River broke through its main bank, causing massive flooding, killing thousands of people, and creating millions of dollars in damage. This moment of crisis mobilized a massive disaster relief effort that involved the relocation of hundreds of thousands of people and the diversion of whole segments of the river. The disaster also sealed the Chinese government’s decision to complete the Three Gorges Dam Project, which became the most ambitious attempt in Chinese history to tame the deadly floodwaters of the Chang.

Summary of Event

In the summer of 1998, China experienced some of the worst flooding ever seen in its five-thousand-year history. In terms of recent history, this flooding was the worst the nation had known since 1954, when the Chang River (also known as the Yangtze River) overflowed its banks and left thirty thousand people dead and much of the countryside devastated. In July of 1998, the Chang again began to spill over its banks, resulting in massive flooding. A government report, written by Commissioner Li Antian of the Chang Water Resources Commission, noted that, despite flood-regulation systems in place since 1954, the storage capacity of numerous local lakes and smaller waterways had actually diminished since the last great flooding disaster. Oversized storm drains diverted overflow water from the Chang but were unable to disperse the enormous volume of water into an area vast enough to prevent the river from continuing to overflow its banks. Yangtze River flood (1998)
Chang River flood (1998)
Floods;Chang River
[kw]Chang River Breaks Through Its Main Bank (Aug. 7, 1998)
[kw]River Breaks Through Its Main Bank, Chang (Aug. 7, 1998)
Yangtze River flood (1998)
Chang River flood (1998)
Floods;Chang River
[g]East Asia;Aug. 7, 1998: Chang River Breaks Through Its Main Bank[10100]
[g]China;Aug. 7, 1998: Chang River Breaks Through Its Main Bank[10100]
[c]Disasters;Aug. 7, 1998: Chang River Breaks Through Its Main Bank[10100]
Wen Jiabao
Jiang Zemin
Zhou Wenzhi
Zhu Rongji

An unusually high rainfall quotient from June to August accounted for the great overabundance of water. Twenty-four days registered extraordinarily heavy rain, making for almost certain disaster. Furthermore, these rainstorms covered extensive areas and lasted for prolonged periods of time. At times, the rainfall was extremely intense and concentrated in small areas, contributing to the violent rise of the Chang. This, combined with the great increase in rainfall over the already full Dongting Hu and Poyang Hu water systems, made for a massive increase in water volume that surpassed the physical limits of both the natural and human-made holding areas. Because much of central China was already oversaturated, the floodwaters of the Chang could not be absorbed and caused a flood of epic proportion.

Wen Jiabao, a member of China’s Political Bureau Standing Committee, visited the region early in the flood season of 1998. At that point, there had already been seven floods in upstream areas of the Chang. Wen recognized that a crisis situation was at hand. Premier Zhu Rongji was informed of the catastrophe and departed at once for the stricken region. Zhu met with numerous local officials and experts, held public meetings, and, after careful consultation with Wen, decided that it was necessary to authorize a diversion of the river’s floodwaters to avoid a major catastrophe.

The Xinhua new agency, the official news outlet of the Chinese government, reported that President Jiang Zemin phoned Wen on July 28, and urged that all precautions be taken to keep the Chang from overflowing its banks. Jiang ordered a massive mobilization of disaster relief workers, including elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some 300,000 PLA soldiers were ordered to central China under the command of more than one hundred generals and with the help of five million militia members. The military was given the task of coordinating relief and evacuation efforts in cooperation with local officials, workers, and peasants. Jiang sent more than ten billion yuan in supplies to bolster the relief efforts and traveled to many of the devastated areas, often appearing in regions where destruction had been the most extensive.

On August 1, 1998, the periphery levees in Waijing, in Hezhen (Jiayu County), collapsed. On August 5, similar collapses occurred in Paizhou and Jiujiang of the Jiangxi area of Jiayu County; the lower regions of the Chang seriously flooded Jiujiang and Jiangxinzhou. The levee at Paizhou collapsed at midnight, opening a 50-meter-long breach in the levee that allowed a torrent of millions of gallons of water to sweep into the area. In the end, this flooding threatened the lives of more than half a million people.

Government relief efforts were furious but in vain; officials tried numerous measure to try to stop the flooding, such as pouring dirt along the banks of the river, lining the banks with sandbags, and pouring an estimated five million tons of rice, soybeans, and other grains into the breaches of the levees. Military units with special training in flood diversion attempted to stem the deluge by pouring concrete along the riverbanks and huge quantities of stone into the breaches. By August 6, more than two thousand people had already died and another eleven thousand were reported missing.

The worst of the year’s disasters occurred on August 7, when the waters of the Chang crested at their highest levels. Government officials, under direct orders from Jiang, dynamited upriver dikes on the Chang to save the city of Wuhan, which had a population of more than seven million. At the same time, in the city of Jiujiang, the main levee of the Chang burst open, allowing waters to rush into the metropolis. The totals of the devastation resulting from the July and August flooding were staggering: 3,000 people killed, 14 million people left homeless, 250 million people displaced, 5.58 million houses destroyed, and approximately $24 billion in economic losses.


Great controversy continued to surround the disaster. While many praised Jiang for his vigorous efforts to aid those in the devastated areas, others criticized him for not acting decisively before the disaster. Critics claim that had Jiang heeded specialists such as Zhu, Wen, and Vice Minister of Water Resources Zhou Wenzhi, much of the fiasco could have been avoided. Jiang refused to order the detonation of explosives in the upwater areas of the Chang early in July, which, critics claim, would have diverted the river’s waters before they swelled to uncontrollable levels. Only after the waters had far surpassed flood levels did Jiang finally give the order to divert the Chang by detonating its banks. Defenders of Jiang, however, point out that, given the unprecedented level of rainfall over an extended period of time and over a vast landmass, diverting the Chang might have lessened the impact of the floods to a minor extent, but the act would have been essentially inconsequential given the extreme forces of nature. Charges of government cover-ups abounded, especially with regard to the reported number of fatalities. While the official number of deaths was 3,004, critics maintain that adding missing persons to the equation put the true death toll of the disaster closer to 30,000.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the 1998 flooding disaster was that it prompted the Chinese government to see the Three Gorges Dam Project through to its successful conclusion. The flood caused the government to undertake drastic measures to tame the Chang. Pushing aside the opinions of scientists, the concerns of anthropologists and historians, and the skepticism of economists and local officials, Jiang and his cabinet vowed that the Three Gorges Dam would be completed and that it would be finished well ahead of schedule. Yangtze River flood (1998)
Chang River flood (1998)
Floods;Chang River

Further Reading

  • Chetham, Deirdre. Before the Deluge: The Vanishing World of the Chang’s Three Gorges. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. An excellent study of the consequences of the Chinese government’s decision to complete the Three Gorges Dam Project at any expense.
  • Kuhn, Robert Lawrence. The Man Who Changed China: The Life and Legacy of Jiang Zemin. New York: Crown, 2004. A chronological biography of Jiang, who took decisive action to bring disaster relief in the wake of the flood. Although the author’s treatment of the event is brief, the book provides important data regarding the scope of the disaster and the steps Jiang took to mobilize the military and other emergency-response forces.
  • Qing, Dai, comp. The River Dragon Has Come! The Three Gorges Dam and the Fate of China’s Yangtze River and Its People. Edited by John G. Thibodeau and Philip B. Williams. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. Compilation discusses the detrimental effects that the dam project could have on the population, history, and economy in the Chang River areas.

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