1887: Massive flooding at China's Yellow River


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The Huang He (Wang He) or Yellow River is one of the longest rivers in China, at 3,398 miles, it loops northward from the mountains in western China, then flows east, each year bringing 1.6 billion tons of fine-grained silt from the mountains to the huge flat basin of the north China plains. That rich laden dirt and silt makes the region one of the most fertile in the world, it is China’s breadbasket. The silt nourishes and replenishes the land. The Yellow River gets its name from its rich, fine-ground, golden mud. Unfortunately for the farmers, the only way the river can spread its fertilization is by flooding the fields; and the Yellow River has flooded a recorded 1,593 times in the last four thousand years, with catastrophic effects. The worst flooding occurred in 1887. For decades leading up to 1887 dikes and embankments had been built along the river to control its flooding and provide irrigation for crops. In some places, because of those levees, the river was flowing more than 20 feet higher than the surrounding countryside – a breech in the system was all that was needed for disaster. An usually snowy winter and a wet mild spring led to massive snowmelt in the mountains and heavy rains contributed more water. On April 30, 1887 the first of several massive floods erupted as the river could no longer be contained. Flooding continued off and on all summer. The flooding led to the greatest weather disaster in human history. More than 900,000 perished in the initial rounds of flooding close to the river with another estimated 1.3 million drowned from flooding away from the river as the floodwaters spread out all across northern China. A further estimated three to four million died from flood-related, waterborne diseases, with a thick deposit of muddy silt 8 ft deep, the most fertile fields in China were a desert which had to be cleared by bare hands and wheelbarrows.

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