Two die, seven missing after flash flood hits holidaymakers on China’s Yellow River


Officials deny reports that a sudden surge of water at an unofficial scenic spot came from nearby Sanmenxia dam.

Two die, seven missing after flash flood hits holidaymakers on China's Yellow River

People cling to rocks Sunday, Jan. 22, 2023, amid the rushing water of the Yellow River downstream from China’s Sanmenxia Hydropower Station.

At least two people are dead and seven remained missing on Monday after families celebrating Lunar New Year were swept away in a sudden flood from China’s Yellow River, state media reported.

Video of the tragedy circulated widely on social media as rescue workers kept looking for survivors after 10 people were saved by the quick-witted response of those around them as torrents of water hit a group of people in what appeared to be a flash flood.

The Sanmenxia emergency response bureau warned people to “pay attention to personal safety over the holiday period,” issuing a video of safety guidelines for people drawn to water at picturesque tourism spots.

A Red Star News report cited witnesses as saying that the water level in the river rose by 1.8 meters (6 feet) in just six minutes, giving people little time to react.

China Radio International quoted an eyewitness as saying that the tourists had gathered at a spot one to two kilometers (.6 to 1.2 miles) away from the Yellow River Dam Scenic Area, a place often frequented by “internet celebrities.”

“It was the first day of the Lunar New Year, the weather was fine, and large numbers of people went there to enjoy themselves,” the report said.

It said the crowds had apparently ignored warning signs saying “Danger, deep water,” as someone had broken through a fence aimed at keeping people away from the river.

“At around 4:10 p.m., the river suddenly rose, and people began to run towards the bank,” the report said. “Some people were washed to the bank by the water, and the people on the bank used branches to pull up some people who fell into the water.” 

It said rescue teams took around 20 minutes to arrive at the scene.

Local officials denied having released water from the dam, but said some overflow of water was part of “normal operations” ordered on a daily basis by the provincial authorities, according to both Red Star and China Radio International.

State news agency Xinhua said six of those rescued had been discharged from hospital by Monday morning, while two were in stable condition in hospital.

Avoiding responsibility

An official who answered the phone at the Sanmenxia municipal government on Monday said investigations are still underway into how the water level rose so suddenly.

“Verification and investigation are still underway, and it’s not the right time to be talking about who is responsible,” the official said. “I can’t give you an exact answer, but I can take note of your question and report it to our leaders.”

A source close to the incident said responsibility for the incident likely rests with both the municipal government at the Yellow River Conservancy Commission under the water resources ministry in Beijing.

Sanmenxia Hydropower Station, a couple of kilometers upstream of the drownings, is both owned and controlled by that committee, the source said.

An official who answered the phone at the Commission who gave only the surname Zhu said she wasn’t authorized to give out any information, although she said she was aware of the official death toll of two people.

“Only the propaganda department can speak on this, or I could get into a lot of trouble,” she said.

A local person familiar with the matter said government departments will always seek to avoid responsibility if they can.

“Now, it’ll be all about evasion and prevarication, which is already beyond belief,” the person said. “Yet they will still lie when they know very well what happened.”

Reports said water behind the dam was estimated to have risen by almost 2 meters within 10 minutes before it began spilling over the top, the Associated Press reported.

The dam on China’s mighty Yellow River was completed in 1960 and has been troubled by sediment buildup that has caused flooding upstream, leading to complaints about the dam’s design and management, it said.

Lunar New Year is peak tourism and travel season in China, with more than two billion trips expected in the 40 days around Lunar New Year on Sunday, coming just weeks after the lifting of the travel bans and restrictions of the zero-COVID policy.

However, China could also see as many as 36,000 deaths a day from COVID-19, as the virus continues to rip through the population, a U.K.-based research firm warned last week. 

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

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