China floods: thousands trapped without fresh water as rain moves north

Thousands of people remain trapped in central China as floods continue to batter the region, killing at least 51, a number that is expected to rise again sharply as recovery crews access previously submerged roads and tunnels in the capital city.

Record-breaking rainstorms – which dumped a year’s worth of rain on and around the capital of Henan province, Zhengzhou, earlier this week – have since moved north, affecting outer cities and regional areas, trapping people without electricity or fresh water, including at hospitals.

On Friday afternoon state media reported the death toll had risen from 33 to 51, citing local authorities, and a financial toll of of more than 65 billion yuan (£7.3bn). More than a million people had been relocated, half of them having lost their homes.

“We couldn’t evacuate in time because my elderly disabled grandma couldn’t leave the house,” one 16-year-old school student surnamed Zhang, who said their house in Gongyi was completely flooded, told AFP. “I was pretty scared I’d drown.”

Local reports suggested the city of Xinxiang, home to 5.8 million people, had been hardest hit, with more than 260mm falling in a two-hour window. State media reported the Wei river had burst its banks and flooded villages near Hebi. Local authorities pushed at least half a dozen trucks into the breach in an attempt to block it, without success.

Residents of Huangzhuang village in, Xinxiang, China are evacuated in the bucket of a digger. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Tens of thousands were being rescued or evacuated from villages and farmlands, some by makeshift bridges, other by inflatable boat or in the buckets of construction diggers.

“Presently, nearly 9,000 people have been safely transferred,” state broadcaster CCTV said, adding authorities were evacuating “the remaining 19,000 people.”

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On Friday afternoon Henan authorities sought to emphasise a strong emergency response and the return of utilities to some neighbourhoods. They kept the death toll at 33, apparently contradicting state media, saying assessment was ongoing.

But the true scale of the disaster is not yet clear, and the press conference prompted some scepticism from residents online. Many areas of Henan remained cut off, without power, fresh water or mobile phone signal. A massive recovery effort had begun in areas where the rain has passed, including the capital Zhengzhou, where at least 12 people died when the subway system flooded.

Focus is on the entrance to a major cross-city tunnel in the city, which was completely submerged in up to 13 metres of water. More than 100 trapped cars were counted after the water was drained on Friday morning. Authorities confirmed just two bodies recovered, but a heavy police presence and reports from media on the ground suggested the toll was unlikely to stay so low.

As the waters have receded from the 4km tunnel running along Zhengzhou City’s JingGuang Ave. #京广路隧道—people ⬆️ wonder how many ppl were likely trapped & killed in that underground traffic tunnel. #ChinaFloods #郑州大雨 — Wes Andrews (@Wes_Andrews) July 22, 2021

Local media reported there were still people missing, with The Paper identifying at least 25 individuals, the youngest just 12 years old. One woman named Ms Ma said she had lost contact with her 14-year-old son and his two friends who had been playing near the tunnel.

On Chinese social media some journalists also noted there was little information yet from affected rural areas.

On Friday 29 of the region’s 30 reservoirs had overflowed, local authorities said, and 65 others were at full capacity. At least two major reservoirs near Zhengzhou were also damaged or at risk of collapse earlier this week, but authorities have refuted suggestions the dams have played a role in subverting the regular water flow.

China’s leader, president Xi Jinping, said there had been a “significant loss of life and damage to property”. Xi has not yet visited the affected areas. On Friday morning state media reported Xi had instead made a surprise visit to Tibet, the first such visit to the politically sensitive area by a Chinese leader in more than three decades.

Damaged cars at the entrance of an expressway tunnel after extreme flooding in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China. Photograph: VCG/Getty Images

Chinese social media was also full of community support coordination, and tales of rescue. One Xinxiang resident described the ground floor of her house going underwater in a matter of hours, prompting her to send an SOS out on social media.

“Around 40 or 50-something calls flooded in, from the local and other provinces from Jiangsu and Jiangxi. They asked for our details and help to contact rescue teams. I saw some lights through my window around 1130pm, it was the rescue team. That was so unreal to hear their voice.”

Another widely shared story recounted the efforts of a young doctor, Yu Yifei, who was credited with saving more than a dozen lives while giving CPR to people caught in the flooded Zhengzhou subway.

As Henan’s disaster continues, eyes are already moving to China’s east coast and an approaching typhoon. Typhoon In-fa has brought heavy rain to northern Taiwan and Japan’s southern islands, and is predicted to make landfall near Shanghai over the weekend. In-fa was credited with partly driving Henan’s rainstorm even while hundreds of kilometres to the east of Taiwan.

During Saturday and Sunday’s high tides “coastal areas should guard against the combined impact of wind, rain and tides,” the National Meteorological Center said, warning the public to prepare for a major weather event.

Additional reporting by Jason Lu