For the past two months, China has been hit by heavy rains. The floods have brought the water level of the Three Gorges Dam to an all-time high. Experts warn that the collapse of the hydroelectric plant would cause immeasurable damage, affecting millions of people.

The constant rains on the Yangtze River and its tributaries, which began in June and continue, have left many areas completely submerged under water. The affected provinces include Sichuan and Gansu, and Chongqing, the mega-city of over 30 million people.

As if that were not enough, Typhoon Higos made landfall on Aug. 19 in the southern province of Guangdong. According to local reports, the nearby provinces of Hainan and Guangxi experienced heavy rains. Classes and flights were suspended.

Shop owners clean up as they stand in water after the village has been flooded following heavy rainfall, in Xiaogu village of Qianwei county, Sichuan Province, China, on Aug. 19, 2020. Picture taken August 19, 2020. (Reuters) 

According to a report by the Xinhua on Aug. 18 the authorities in Sichuan and Chongqing raised the flood control response to level one, the highest in China’s four-level flood response system.

The latest data from the Ministry of Emergency Management indicate that floods have affected at least 54.8 million people in 27 provinces and regions. However, many Chinese doubt the official figures and believe that the number of victims is actually much higher.

A man rests on an inflatable boat on a flooded street in Zhegao town near Chao Lake, in Chaohu, Anhui Province, China July 23, 2020. (Reuters)

Could the Three Gorges Dam collapse?

Heavy rains have caused water levels to rise dangerously at the Three Gorges Dam, the hydroelectric plant located at the top of the Yangtze.

The increase in the water levels, unprecedented so far, was such that the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources was forced to issue a warning on Aug. 18.

According to Chinese state media, the authorities indicated that water levels in the dam reached more than 74,000 cubic meters per second on the morning of Aug. 20—the highest level since the dam was launched in 2003.

The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest hydropower generation facility. It is 607 feet high and 7,575 feet wide. Its waters feed 34 generators, with a total power of 22,500 megawatts.

Because of the incessant rains, experts have been warning that the persistent rise in the water level is threatening the stability of the hydroelectric plant.

One of these specialists is Dean Cheng, senior researcher at the Center for Asian Studies of the Heritage Foundation, a think tank based in Washington.

“It [People’s Republic of China], now faces the potential for a major catastrophe due to massive rains,” warns Cheng in a column published on the think tank’s website.

“The massive runoff into the Yangtze has led to concerns that the Three Gorges Dam will be overstressed beyond its capacity to withstand the inflow,” he said.

What happens if the dam fails?

The reservoir’s maximum level is 175 meters and it has already reached 164.18 meters, its historical maximum. But could it collapse? This is the question that makes many uncomfortable because the consequences would be immeasurable.

“This is a scary but not impossible scenario,” Cheng said with concern.

According to the expert, if the dam collapses, the resulting deluge would affect millions of people living downstream, flood major cities (including Wuhan, where the COVID-19 outbreak began) and wipe out extensive farmland.

If the dam fails, the first effect would be a huge torrent of water sweeping down the mighty Yangtze River.

“The loss of life in the event of such a catastrophe would be staggering,” warned Cheng, detailing that several cities would be flooded downstream of the dam.

The same would happen to the nearby countryside.

“The resulting loss of cropland would further tax China’s already stressed food production capacity, which is already being threatened by an outbreak of African swine fever and an invasion of fall armyworm,” he said, warning that even the food supply of the Chinese people could be at risk.

“The global economic impact would be huge, not only due to supply chain disruptions, but the likely financial effects of such a massive catastrophe,” he said. “While China could import food to replace flooded stocks, that in turn would create global impacts on world food markets,” he added.