Around 6pm on Tuesday evening a passenger train on Line 5 of Zhengzhou’s subway system was approaching Shakoulu station in the north of the city. Heavy rain had been falling for days as is common at this time of year. But the city had just experienced the most intense downpour ever recorded in China – with 20 centimetres of water pouring down in a single hour.
The train stopped before it reached the station and water started to seep into the carriage. Over the course of the next four hours, it rose ever higher. In images filmed prior to the passengers being rescued, the water level had come up to peoples’ chests
“I was really scared. The most terrible thing was not the water but that the air was getting thinner and thinner. Many people had symptoms of breathing difficulties,” one passenger on the subway train told Xinhua.
Twelve people on the train died, four were injured and some 500 were evacuated.
Above ground the situation was also nightmarish: roads had transformed into torrents of brown water, reservoirs were coming close to spilling point and huge sinkholes had formed.
In one video posted to social media, swimmers can be seen trying to rescue a drowning man by repurposing a long, red banner to pull his seemingly lifeless body to safety.
The deluge was “continuous” and “unprecedented”, the Henan provincial government said at a press conference, adding that a year’s worth of rain had fallen in just three days.
The floods in Henan come after a summer of deadly downpours in countries as far apart as Germany, Japan and India. In total 33 people were confirmed dead in this week’s Chinese floods and at least eight more are missing, local authorities said. About three million people were affected by rain-related disruption and 256,000 have been relocated. As of Thursday afternoon, the direct economic damage was estimated at Rmb1.2 billion ($185 million), with some 75,000 hectares of arable land also impacted. Henan is a major agricultural centre producing 10% of the national grain harvest.
Official media outlets chose not to link the intense downpour directly to climate change, although some warned that severe weather like this is likely to become more common. The Global Times suggested that cities needed to review their drainage systems in the light of changing weather patterns. “From tornadoes in northern China to the torrential rain in Henan, these disasters are telling us that extreme weather and its intensity are increasing significantly,” the state-backed newspaper warned.
As of Wednesday, the city of Zhengzhou and other areas of Henan were without electricity and public transport. Forecasters also warned that more rain was coming and that it could trigger landslides in rural areas, even as the military blasted holes to release water pressure at one of the 40 dams near Zhengzhou.
Chinese President Xi Jinping was shown on state television on Wednesday night urging the emergency services to “prevent secondary disasters”. The provincial unit of the Commission for Discipline Inspection in Henan issued an emergency notice on the same day advising that any late reporting, concealment or omission of important flood and disaster information was strictly prohibited and would be severely punished.
Some of the breakdowns in information flow over the last few days were anything but deliberate, however. In one area of Henan the head of the local meteorological bureau was washed away by heavy flooding on Tuesday. It meant that his department was unable to update its weather forecasting for more than 10 hours, as the bureau tunsuccessfully tried to renew contact with their employee.
Karsten Haustein of Oxford University told Bloomberg that the impact of the dramatic downpour had been “supercharged” by climate change.
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