Life and disaster on the Yangtze River

World Today

Chinese soldiers carry their boat to the embankment after their search and rescue operation near a capsized cruise ship on the Yangtze River in Jianli in central China’s Hubei province, Tuesday, June 2, 2015. Divers on Tuesday pulled several survivors from inside the capsized cruise ship and searched for other survivors, state media said, giving some small hope to an apparently massive tragedy. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The strip along the Yangtze River where the Eastern Star capsized Monday and left at least 400 people missing is a popular one for tourists. It’s only 100 miles or so downriver from the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, installed in large part because the river is no stranger to deadly disasters.

The Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric facility, sees an average of 1.8 million tourists a year, according to Xinhua. While it creates enough energy to power two Beijings, it was constructed in large part to stem the massive flooding that has repeatedly devastated the area.

The three deadliest Yangtze River floods of the 20th century:

  • 1998: More than 3,600 people are killed by flooding, according to official reports. Some 14 million more were left homeless, and estimated damages topped $20 billion. (The video below shows file footage from the flooding and attempts to fight in back.)
  • 1954: In late June, flood waters hit a historic high of 44.67 meters (147 feet) in Jingzhou, Hubei and 29.73 meters (98 feet) in Wuhan. This flood and subsequent plague killed an estimated 33,000 people.
  • 1931: During the summer, some 30,000 square miles (77,700 square kilometers) flooded along the Yangtze, with reports showing more than 24 inches (61 centimeters) of rain fell during July alone. Estimates of the number of people killed range between 145,000 to 300,000, and another 40 million left homeless. Combined with flooding on the Yellow River and Huai River in China that year, it became one of the deadliest natural disasters of the 20th century: some 3.7 to 4 million people are estimated to have died from flooding.
The 1998 flooding of the Yangtze River

The 1998 flooding of the Yangtze River

This file footage compilation shows the flooding of China's Yangtze River in 1998.

At more than 3,900 miles (6,300 kilometers) it’s the longest river in China and third-longest river in the world, coming in after the Nile and Amazon rivers. It flows west to east, beginning near Mt. Geladandong in Qinghai Province and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Shanghai.

Its basin is home to a third of the country’s population, and the Yangtze River connects some of China’s major cities, including Shanghai, Wuxi, Yangzhou, Zhenjiang, Nanjing, Wuhan, Yichang, and Chongqing.

Cities along the Yangtze river