Wednesday 29 January 2014

The worst floods in history

The worst natural disaster ever happened in 1931 when the Yellow River and the Yangtze burst their banks in China, flooding an area nearly as big as England. Up to 3.75 million people lost their lives in the flood itself, then in the famine and disease that swept through the country in its wake. The second deadliest natural disaster ever was another flood of the Yellow River in 1887, which cost up to 2.5 million lives.
In fact, the Yellow River burst its banks an estimated 1,500 times over three millennia, to be given the name ‘China’s Sorrow’.  Another of its floods in 1938 (pictured) cost the lives of up to 800,000 people, but this was a man-made flood, as the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, ordered dykes to be blown up to slow the advance of the invading Japanese army.
Floods come in many shapes and sizes, and China was also the scene of the world’s deadliest dam burst, with the collapse in 1975 of a number of Gerry-built structures erected as part of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward, at the cost of up to 230,000 lives.
We usually think of rain causing floods, but the culprit in Peru in 1941 was a heat wave. It caused a huge lump of ice to fall off a mountain into Lake Palcacocha, making it overflow and sending a torrent racing through towns and villages, drowning 7,000 people.

*For the full story, see my new book, Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9. It also includes chapters on how so many religions have stories of apocalyptic floods, how floods have been portrayed in literature, art and films, how some of the most ambitious structures ever built by humans have been erected to protect against flooding, and how climate change may now be making humanity more vulnerable than ever to the waters.
** Here's a review of the book.

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