I'm a Brit by birth, so it's built into our DNA to natter about the weather. I'd bet the English have more words for rain than the Inuit supposedly have for snow.
So here in Hong Kong, we are watching the intense downpours in China. Parts of central and southern China are experiencing once-in-a-century flooding. It isn't often that precipitation makes the investment news, but this is worth watching. The floodwaters threaten Wuhan and a host of other Chinese cities. To some superstitious observers, these floods come hard on the heels of the plague, disasters of Biblical proportion.
Should the authorities not handle the crisis well, the hit to the reputation of a Chinese Communist Party struggling to control its coronavirus narrative could be severe. Regular folks will be hit hard in the pocket because the price of pork and vegetables is already climbing. Inflation will likely rise by 0.6 percentage points in July and August, year on year, Nomura calculates, correcting once the flow of produce resumes.
The Yangtze River is the main concern. China and indeed Asia's biggest river has broken its banks in numerous places after two months of unusually powerful rain. The massive Three Gorges Dam - arguably China's most-famed piece of engineering prowess - is bulging at its concrete seams. Last week, several days of fresh rain took its water levels to their highest since the dam was finished in 2009.
The operator of the dam was forced to admit last Saturday that it has "deformed slightly," with peripheral parts of its 1.5-mile span buckling. That displaced some structures and caused seepage for the 18 hours on Saturday and Sunday when water was discharged from the dam.
Defaming the dam
The Chinese propaganda machine has swung into action to dispel the notion that the dam might collapse. "Three Gorges Stable, prevents out-of-control floods," runs a worryingly defensive headline in the Global Times newspaper. China's mouthpiece on foreign affairs has sprung to the dam's defense against what it deems as multiple rounds of "defamation," coverage it says betrays the anti-China (and anti-physics) bent of the Western media.
The poor dam has faced "smears and rumors" and is being defamed with "groundless hype," apparently. The "elastic deformation" of the dam is not a worrying sign, the Global Times insists, because the deformation is recoverable and "within the design limits."
"People's conscience is more easily distorted than a dam, while the dam is much stronger than rumors about it, observers said," the propaganda piece concludes.
So there you have it. Any bending in the world's biggest hydropower project is all part of the plan!
Around 34 million people have been severely hit by the flooding, with 1.8 million needing to be evacuated and 28,000 left homeless, according to China's Ministry of Emergency Management.
Sichuan Province has seen its normal annual rainfall occur since the start of this flood early in late June. Neighboring Chongqing, which with 15.8 million residents is China's third-largest city, has been deluged.
This is flood season in this part of China. Nevertheless, the floods in 2020 have surpassed those in 2016 in terms of volume and promise to challenge or even exceed those in 1998 for damage. That would knock 0.2 percentage points off China's economic growth in the third quarter, according to Nomura's math.
More than half the hit comes from disrupted industry and the rest from flooded-out farmers. Manufacturing investment will need to be deferred, construction that involves work outside has to be put off, and the cargo volumes flowing up and down the Yangtze are disrupted.
The 1998 floods hurt 14% of China's entire crop production at the time. The less-severe flooding in 2016 was aided by better flood control due to the Three Gorges Dam, harming only 3% of total farm crops. The seven prefectures currently experiencing the heaviest flooding amount to 29% of China's current agricultural sector, so the farming impact could be huge. Meat and vegetables are already harder to come by, particularly pork, because those provinces produce one-third of China's pig products.
Rain gets leaders' attention
The disaster management ministry reported 82 billion yuan (US$11.6 billion) of direct damage by July 12, but that will be a fraction of the eventual tally. The rainwater is now reaching the downstream portions of the river and the Yangtze River Delta, which is China's industrial heartland. The heat of summer means the flooding could overlap with typhoon season in that low-lying land.
Heavy rain is still falling in areas that feed into the Yangtze River. Floodwaters are also rising in the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, China's second largest, which sits to the Yangtze's north.
You know the flooding is serious because the Chinese Communist Party has been holding meetings about it. What's more, these are chaired by General Secretary Xi Jinping - the flooding goes right to the top.
There has been a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Under the leadership of this committee within the committee, party committees and governments "at all levels" have been leading the fight, Xi said. The committee of the bureau of the committee of the party as far back as May 19 ordered flood prevention and control in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze. Xi, the general secretary of the communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission as well as the nation's president, says China has entered a crucial period of flood control.
There is plenty of coverage every time Chinese authorities are forced to release storm water. Most dramatically, a dam on the Chu river in Anhui Province was blown up with explosives on Sunday morning to relieve the flooding behind the dam. The water was due to be channeled into holding ponds on a flood plain.
On the Huai River, which lies between the Yangtze and the Yellow rivers, the authorities were forced to open the floodgates on the Wangjiaba dam. The water had risen to 30 meters, above the maximum level that the dikes on the dam could accommodate. According to Hong Kong press reports, that move flooded the fields of 170,000 farmers, many of them sharecroppers who fund their farms with loans. Wiping out their crops also wipes them out financially.
Japan under a deluge, too
The huge band of rain has also blanketed southern Japan. Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu has been hit hardest, with one meter of rain falling inside three days. Kumamoto is always inundated in June and July - 41% of its rain falls in those two months alone. This time, the Kuma River that stretches across the prefecture burst its banks. Of the 64 reported deaths, 14 came when the Kuma flooded a nursing home.
Japan is working on a rescue package for the affected areas after already committing ¥400 billion (US$3.7 billion) to reconstruction work and to rebuild small businesses affected by the disaster. Besides Kumamoto, there were also landslides and flooding in neighboring Nagasaki and Kagoshima prefectures.
China's extremely heavy flooding in 1998 hit 223 million people in the end - a quarter of a billion. That resulted in 166 billion yuan (US$23.4 billion) in losses and 4,150 deaths. The repeat episode in 2016 was far less widespread. but given the country's increased economic size dealt a blow of 213 billion (US$30.0 billion). We watch and wait to see the eventual cost once these waters recede.