HONG KONG—Months after COVID-19 devastated China’s cities, floods are now overwhelming huge swaths of land across China—after starting in the south, they’ve spread across the span of the country—brought on by unusually heavy marathon rains since early June. The overflow, which has so far affected nearly 24 million people and displaced many of them, also coincides with another looming disaster: swarms of locusts are starting to eat their way into China, too.
The confluence of these events comes as China restarts its economy and the government tries to prevent second and third waves of coronavirus infections. Despite Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s instruction to officials around the country to “shoulder their responsibilities” in flood relief and to implement plans that will provide early warning, hundreds of thousands of people have already lost their homes or livelihoods.
So far, at least 150 people have died because of the floods, or are missing and presumed to be dead. The area that is underwater is extensive, stretching from Zhejiang province on the eastern coast to Yunnan in the southwest, along the border with Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. Damage to public facilities and thousands of homes that are now underwater amounts to more than $7 billion, according to China’s Ministry of Emergency Management. Total economic losses so far add up to 86 billion yuan, or over $12 billion, according to the South China Morning Post.
The downpours that are refilling flooded areas and soaking more locations are the consequence of excess water vapors blown in from the Pacific and Indian Oceans, according to Hu Xiao, chief forecaster of the China Meteorological Administration.
But critics have lambasted the rapid and poorly planned urban development that takes place across the country in the name of poverty alleviation, as well as the construction of many badly designed dams that operate along the Yangtze River.
Climate change is certainly a factor in this disaster too, said Song Lianchun, a meteorologist at China’s National Climate Center. Song specifically cited “an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events” brought on by global warming.
Most major cities have so far stayed relatively dry. But even cities that are designated as “tier-2” in China can be home to many people. For instance, Wuhan, which is on high alert because of rising water levels along the riverbanks, has more than 11 million residents. And farmland in various corners of the country is, for now, unfarmable, with existing crops lost to the torrents.
Across China, soldiers, engineers, and workers are building and reinforcing embankments. Firefighters and other rescue personnel are transporting evacuees, rowing up to their houses and taking them to safety.
In early July, when high-school students had to take their college entrance exams, many had to travel to their schools and test centers by rowboat, at times navigating under exposed electrical cables. Multi-story houses collapsed in landslides. Cultural landmarks like centuries-old stone bridges, dynastic city walls, and the restored residences of historic figures have been significantly damaged.
The month-long deluge is so severe that Chinese authorities blew up a dam to ease water levels in eastern China’s Anhui province on Sunday morning, causing some alarm in cities and villages that are downstream. Last week, slightly upstream, Hubei’s Three Gorges Dam—the world’s largest power station—opened three floodgates after water levels rose to more than 50 feet above the flood mark. But by Tuesday, they were already back to where they started.
So far, the Chinese government has earmarked $44 million as relief funds—far from sufficient to cover a nationwide response.
The Other Plague
Since late 2019, city-sized locust swarms have ravaged the Horn of Africa, parts of the Middle East, and South Asia. The pests have exacerbated the famine in Yemen, cleared fields across East Africa, and displaced farmers in Pakistan and northern India.
China has been worried for months that the locusts may make their way into the country and wreak havoc on the food chain. State media spun fantastic tales about locust prevention—including the notion that 100,000 “duck troops” would make their way to the border with India and Pakistan and simply consume the swarm. State-run Global Times said that the bugs would be “eaten by ducks, fried for food,” and were “not a threat to China.”
But scientists and experts offered a graver warning. While the Chinese government was talking about dispatching avian troops to safeguard the border, an agriculture expert with the Beijing-headquartered Institute of Plant Protection of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Zhang Zehua, predicted the swarms could hit southwestern China in June or July.
As it turns out, Zhang was right.
Last month, locusts made their way into Yunnan province, targeting 21,500 acres of quiet, tropical lowlands as their new source of food. Local authorities have deployed drones and workers loaded with pesticides to blanket land that has been overrun by the bugs and chip away at the infestation. For now, it is not clear whether future waves of locusts can fly into China, but the worry is that the swarms that are already present may have laid clusters of eggs.
The floods and potential disruptions in the food chain could hit China and its neighbors in another way if the pandemic comes roaring back.
Although there is still doubt about the veracity of infection numbers and the official death toll due to COVID-19, China has flattened and squashed the curve by implementing strict lockdowns, conducting wide-scale testing and contact tracing, adopting tech-based solutions like health QR codes linked with personal smartphones and e-wallets, and restricting entry to the country. China’s economy is slowly coming back to life, with tourists even strolling around popular sites in Yunnan—many without their masks on.
But with a deluge destroying homes and crop fields being wiped out by both bugs and floods, a deadly combination is brewing if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 infections, even in small pockets. Even the smallest slip-ups could lead to a doomsday outcome.