At least 25 people died in the ‘heaviest rainfall in a millenium’ in central China’s Henan province as torrential floods paralysed several cities, causing millions of dollars in damage.

Rainfall over the past three days in Zhengzhou, the local capital, was almost on par with the city’s annual average. At one point, twenty centimetres pelted down in just one hour – more water than fell on the hardest-hit parts of Germany over three days in the recent European floods.

Swaths of Henan province, which has a population of 10 million, remained under water on Wednesday as authorities evacuated about 200,000 people to safe zones, according to state media.

More rain is forecast across the area for the next three days, and the People’s Liberation Army has sent more than 5,700 soldiers and personnel to help with search and rescue. China’s military also blasted a dam on Tuesday night in an attempt to release floodwaters.

“Flood-prevention efforts have become very difficult,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in a statement broadcast on state television. Forecasters speculated that it was the heaviest rainfall in 1,000 years.

Cars sit in flood water after heavy rain hit the city of Zhengzhou in China's central Henan province

Credit: Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Vehicles float down the street as flood water swamps central China's Zhengzhou city

A man rides a bicycle through flood waters along a street following heavy rains in Zhengzho



Zhengzhou is also home to a number of Foxconn factories, a major Apple supplier, though the company said plants continued to operate as normal.

Sheets of rain quickly turned streets into rivers at times neck-high. Floods forced subway routes to stop. Train service across the province was suspended. Highways remained closed and flights cancelled.  

Some children have been stuck at school since Tuesday, unable to return home or be picked up by parents.

Ruby Feng, 33, a Zhengzhou resident, said she carried her son on her back to get him home after staying at his school on Tuesday.

“When I woke up at 4am, it was still raining, and when I looked at my kid sleeping, I was filled with panic.”

Zhang Yujie, 26, another Zhengzhou resident, said that such heavy rain was unexpected in Henan. After her office was flooded, she made her way home through the water.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said. “It is really scary.”

At least 12 died and five others were injured when the subway flooded on Tuesday, trapping passengers inside carriages as water levels rose.

Desperate commuters shared videos on social media as they clung to railings, trying to keep their heads above the water as the air began to run out.

A local hospital in Zhengzhou with more than 7,000 beds also lost power, with staff racing to relocate hundreds of critically ill patients, according to state media.

China experiences rain and regular flooding each summer though each year the human impact increases as more people move into the country’s rapidly expanding urban centres.

Henan is part of the Yellow River basin in China and has several major river systems that are prone to flooding each year. Zhengzhou itself rests on the banks of the Yellow River.

The current heavy summer storms are the result of a western Pacific subtropical high, a pressure system that carries warm air from the south to the north.

Rescue workers evacuate residents in Hefei


Vehicles in Zhengzhou

Credit: Zhu Xiang/Xinhua

While climate change has led to extreme weather phenomena, the severe flooding in China is linked to man-made problems.

China has an overreliance on dams – more than 98,000, the most of any country in the world – many of which were built decades ago, have been poorly maintained and are now unable to keep water at bay.

The dams have cut connections between rivers and lakes, disrupting the floodplains that before would have absorbed China’s summer downpours. 

Zhengzhou dam locator maps (Satellite)

China Zhengzhou urban expansion over the last 32 years

Urban centres are also expanding into low-lying areas, with local governments at times building whole cities from scratch without proper drainage systems.

Developments in floodplains are getting far too close to water, which can “increase flood exposure and exacerbate flood risk,” according to a recent study published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. 

State media told a different story, however, highlighting the unprecedented precipitation levels.

A man up to his shoulders in water in flood-ravaged Zhengzhou

China Zhengzhou urban expansion over the last 32 years

"No country would be safe from such a rainstorm,” Cheng Xiaotao from the National Disaster Reduction Commission told state media. “This deluge is beyond standard.”

Additional reporting by Wen Xu