Prepared by Ignacio Armillas/Heinz Kull/David Lewis/Gunnar Wiessner

CHINA: Rebuilding After the Floods of 1998

[The following is a summary of the mission report prepared by a UNCHS (Habitat) post flood evaluation mission undertaken to Jianxi and Hubei provinces in November-December 1998.]

Summer floods along the great rivers of China have been an annual occurrence for millennia. Residents have adapted to this phenomenon, capturing the benefits while allaying the negative consequences. The fertile plains along the rivers and associated lakes have supported high levels of agricultural productivity, providing the foundation for development of the Chinese civilization.

The floods of 1998

In recent decades population pressure and industrial development have caused settlements and economic infrastructure to be built in low laying areas vulnerable to inundation. The need to expand acreage for food production has also stimulated land reclamation from lakes and other flood surge catchment areas. Strategies to reduce the effects of seasonal floods have focused on large scale engineering efforts such as the dams and embankments. In the short term these structures help manage seasonal flooding. But in the long term, such capital intensive approaches can be questioned on both cost-effectiveness and environmental grounds. Over time, they tend to exacerbate the impact of floods by accelerating the siltation of river channels and lakes, reducing the natural surge absorption capacity. High water levels vary from year to year. While flood protection measures can be designed for a particular water level, these levels may be exceeded during periods of extraordinary flow, and 1998 was such a year. Due to a combination of factors, unusually high levels occurred in the north-east, along the Songhuajiang, Nenjiang and other rivers, and in the central and southern parts of the country along the Yangtze and its tributaries.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs reported that about 230 million people were affected by the floods, and as many as twenty million people were displaced. Seven million houses were totally destroyed, and thirteen million damaged and in need of repair. Fifteen million farmers lost their crops contributing to a total direct economic loss estimated to exceed US$ 32 billion. Excellent early warning systems and prompt response by the government kept the death toll to 3,656 people, an extraordinary accomplishment considering the immensity of the floods. Provincial authorities stated that the 1998 disaster was worse than the floods of 1954, perhaps the worst natural ever in terms of the number of people affected.

UNCHS (Habitat) Assistance

In response to the flood, the national government worked closely with provincial and local governmental bodies in mounting a major reconstruction initiative. As part of the effort, the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (HABITAT) was requested to provide technical assistance in planning the program. This assistance took the form of an international team that worked in the flood area in December 1998. (The authors of this paper were members of the team.) They were requested to provide advice on the reconstruction program and make specific recommendations for demonstration projects.
In the northern part of the country the early onslaught of winter made it imperative that the government help construct shelter for the displaced population and provide emergency winter supplies. In some cases temporary "pit houses" were being used. In the southern parts of the country there was more time to plan and carry out rehabilitation and reconstruction before the onset of cold temperatures. The same needs, however, are being felt, and tents were being provided for temporary shelter.

The team visited two of the most affected provinces in central and southern China, Hubei and Jiangxi. All of the sites examined were rural and particularly vulnerable to seasonal flooding. Village rehabilitation and relocation initiatives were well under way in both regions.

In Hubei Province, the flood took its worst toll in those areas which had previously served as natural flood plains for the Yangtze river and its tributaries. The farmlands along the river, and its associated tributaries and lakes, have been protected by thousands of kilometres of dikes. Over time, however, the building up of the river banks has led to silting that has caused the level of the river beds to rise, which in turn has lifted the level of the river surface requiring ever higher levees. The result has been that the river in many areas, even under normal conditions, is higher than the surrounding countryside. When flow rates are increased by heavy rains as were experienced in the summer of 1998, the dike and levee systems could not contain the water, and wide-spread flooding followed.

In Jiangxi Province most flooding took place in areas surrounding Lake Boyang. Extensive land reclamation in recent decades has considerably reduced the lake's surge storage capacity. In 1954 this lake had a surface area of 5,100 square kilometres. and a capacity of 37 billion cubic metres, by 1997 the surface had been reduced to 3,900 square kilometres and the capacity to 29.8 billion cubic metres.

Government Programs

The central government provides guideline policies and coordinates rehabilitation work after disasters, while the provincial and local governments carry out the reconstruction work. In the case of the floods of 1998, the Ministry of Civil Affairs is the lead ministry for rehabilitation of villages and towns, while the Ministry of Construction is responsible for the village relocation projects and infrastructure works. This Ministry formulates general guidelines, while the specific layout plans for the new villages are prepared at the provincial level by professional planning and design institutes.

The government has established a policy that recovery efforts should not simply restore the affected areas to their pre-disaster condition, but should aim at improved living conditions for the population, and should support complementary development initiatives. Furthermore, reconstruction and rehabilitation should take place in the original location of the settlements whenever possible. Only in exceptional cases where the original settlement was located in a high risk area (e.g., lowlands next to a river, or islands in the river which require major protective embankments that would have significant impact on the natural flow of the waters), or in areas to be reclaimed by rivers channels or lakes will settlement relocation be considered. Based on this overall policy the government's objectives are:

Expand flood reception capacity;

Reduce risk to life and property;

Improve the living conditions of victims; and

Stimulate economic development with emphasis on the industrial sector.

The first and second objectives relate to the encroachment of human activity and settlement in natural flood surge absorption areas along rivers and lakes. Those uses of such areas that place human life or major investments at risk will be discouraged.

The reduction of natural flood plain areas over the last several decades contributed significantly to this year's massive floods. Consequently, the government intends to restore these areas to function in their former capacity. Farming and similar activities can, and will be allowed to take place, but human settlements located in these areas will be relocated. In Jiangxi province, for example, the government intends to restore Lake Poyang to its pre-1954 capacity. This will require that villages located on reclaimed lake land of less than 22 metres elevation (above sea level) be relocated to higher ground. In Hubei province, settlements on low islands or shores without protection of the main dike system of the Yangtze River will also be moved to higher ground or to locations behind the dike.

The third objective is one frequently absent in post-disaster rehabilitation programs. Often government, and donors, seek only to restore conditions to those prevailing before the disaster, forsaking the opportunity to make improvements when rehabilitation has to be done anyway.

The last objective pertains to the development of new sources of employment in rural areas. This is important throughout the country since the agricultural sector will require less workers as it modernizes, and alternative sources of employment will have to be available in rural areas if population is not to leave those areas. This factor is particular significant in villages that are being relocated because their land reverted to the lake.

By December 1998, the government had already selected the new sites for those villages to be relocated. This was done on the basis of regional development plans and detailed site studies. In some cases the population of villages being abandoned will be integrated into existing villages or towns, expanding the settlement area and upgrading services such as schools and clinics. In other cases the villages will be relocated to new places. Villages where the inhabitants are expected to continue working their original farmland are being relocated within a "comfortable distance from the new village to its fields." "Comfortable distance" is considered to be a maximum of five kilometres.

Although only a relatively small number of affected villages will be relocated, the government is giving these settlements high priority, because they are the villages at high risk of future flooding. In line with this policy the benefits for families in relocated villages are more generous than those for families in villages that are simply being rehabilitated. The financial allowances offered by the Government for housing to each family in a relocated village are:

Cash payment ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 Yuan (approx. US$ 1,200 to 1,800) Government guarantee of credits for building materials; and

Tax exemptions.

The cash grant is sufficient to cover a major portion of the costs of constructing 80 square metres at ground level. The rest of the costs are to be covered by each family from their own savings, and by borrowing from small credit facilities and relatives. The government is also providing a credit guarantee that covers the cost of additional building materials.

The Government will provide social facilities and municipal services. However, except for a few model villages, the Government can only afford to build some schools and clinics. For the time being infrastructure for municipal services is not being provided.

In the case of villages that are to be rehabilitated in their existing sites, the cash grant provided by the Government for house repair or reconstruction is much smaller than that for house replacement in villages being relocated. Additional resources are provided by provincial and county governments, with the balance to be covered by the beneficiary.

Village Planning and Construction

In most cases, plans for the relocated villages were prepared by the local county, city and/or provincial planning institutes (guihua shejiyuan). In a few villages, the plans were centrally prepared by the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design (zhongguo chengshi guihua sheji yanjiuyuan) in Beijing. In at least one case, the village of Huangpojing, Jiangxi province, parts of the new settlement plan were designed by the villagers themselves. This was done as an emergency action immediately after the floods to ensure an early start of there construction at a time when the over-stretched governmental planning agencies were unable to attend the planning needs of all the affected settlements.

The designs for new settlements are highly symmetrical. In all the plans reviewed by the HABITAT team the layout was that of a grid of straight streets intersecting at 90 degrees. This configuration appears to be favoured by the communities as it allows for the orientation of the buildings along the traditional north-south axis. The symmetrical lay out should also facilitate the future provision of water and sanitation infrastructure. Within any village, the houses all have the same setback from the road. The structures are paired so that two units share a common wall to save building materials and land.

The government's rehabilitation strategy is particularly noteworthy for the involvement of community leaders and officials in the process, and for the support of self help initiatives. Although the general guidelines and a good part of the resources come from the central government, the rehabilitation plans are prepared by professional institutes at the provincial level and drawn in close consultation with county authorities and the communities. According to reports obtained from the communities, this consultative process has worked well. Villagers explained that the planning teams had met with them several times in their old villages.

In all the sites visited by the team, the villagers reported that the plans had been presented as draft versions at public meetings. In cases where the future residents suggested changes to these drafts the recommendations were taken into account by the planning department in finalizing the layouts. The villagers in Baotacun, Hubei province, for instance, reported that the draft plan originally had shown a more heterogeneous layout design of the settlement. Apparently the design team had tried to suggest a settlement structure that allowed a stronger emphasis on aspects of individuality. However, this plan was not approved by the people. Instead, they suggested a general orientation of all buildings according to the traditional north-south axis of Chinese farm houses. As a result, the final plan approved by the people shows the typical highly symmetric design. The villagers also asked for a reduction of the space occupied by the whole site in order to retain more farmland. This suggestion was accepted by the planning team, and is reflected in the relatively narrow layout of the final design.

Housing plots in the relocated villages were generally distributed among the villagers through a public lottery. Everyone seemed satisfied with this system. In some cases, villagers reported that after the lottery, individual families had traded lots by mutual agreement.

Depending on the size and architectural complexity of the new site and its buildings, the degree of technical expertise required for construction varied from location to location. In general, the new buildings are either built by the villagers themselves or by licensed construction workers who had undergone a short training course provided by the construction department at the county or provincial level. Technical assistance during the construction phase was provided by resident advisors supplied by the provincial governments. To reduce costs, the villagers undertook all the unskilled work such as the transportation of building materials to the construction sites, and the mixing of cement and mortar. All members of the household helped.

The dwellings are being built of traditional construction materials--bricks, stone, and cement. The local residents in the areas pointed out that they not only find these materials acceptable and know how to build with them, but by using the same materials as they had in the past, it was possible to recycle the bricks and stone from the destroyed buildings.


None of the relocated villages visited was connected to a public water supply or sewer system. According to information obtained from the local governments, the connection of the new villages to water supply systems, though planned, is not envisaged in the near future due to financial constraints. Water for the relocated villages will therefore be provided in the same way as in traditional villages with each family having its own shallow well in the backyard.

The lack of attention to the water and sanitation is not due to a lack of awareness on the part of responsible officials. It is a question of priorities and resources. The highest priority is the provision of shelter. After the need for housing is addressed, there will be few resources left for other priorities including schools and health facilities. Thus, the provision of water and sanitation will have to wait, or be left to individual villages to resolve on their own.

All new settlements are currently accessible by unpaved roads. These are tracks that have been built to provide access for construction vehicles access to the site. they may not be the most efficient in terms of providing the villagers with access to their agricultural land, schools, and markets. Also, these roads may not be passable during the rainy season.


The government policies and programs for village rehabilitation/relocation are compelling. Progress with implementation is impressive. Locational factors are being taken into consideration, and plans for the new villages are well done, with the communities participating in the process. The houses are more than adequate in terms of space and quality of materials being used, and the designs seem to reflect the cultural preferences of the population.

The next immediate need is for social service facilities such as schools and clinics. Simultaneously, water, sewerage, and road infrastructure will have to be installed. (Electricity is already available in most sites.)

Looking ahead, the government may wish to develop the employment generating potential of the construction industry, particularly in the flood-affected areas. The current building activity has been accelerated to create the minimally needed accommodation as quickly as possible. Virtually all of the new dwelling units will require further construction before they are completed. Skilled construction workers are going to be in demand. They will also be needed for the schools and clinics that will be built, and the water, sewerage, and road infrastructure that will be installed. Government training programs emphasizing new techniques and quality control would be particularly productive.

The availability of infrastructure will help integrate the villages with local, regional, and national economic structures, and facilitate the development of local employment opportunities.

Mission Members

1. Dr. Ignacio Armillas (Team Leader)

Director, UNCHS (Habitat) Fukuoka Office

Fukuoka, Japan

2. Dr. Heinz Kull (Disaster Management Specialist)

Coordinator, Disaster Management Programme

UNCHS /Technical Cooperation Division

Nairobi, Kenya

3. Dr. David Lewis (Resettlement Consultant)

Professor, Department of City and Regional Planning

Cornell University

Ithaca, New York, USA

4. Dr. Gunnar Wiessner (Community Development Expert)

Junior Professional Officer, UNCHS

Bangkok, Thailand

5. Mr. Gong Weiping (Planning Expert)

Planner, Center for Administration of National and Urban Planning

Ministry of Construction

Beijing, China

6. Mr. Li Qiang (Planning Expert)

Senior Urban Planner, Department of Rural and Township Design and Planning

China Building Technology Development Corporation

Beijing, China

Representatives from the Ministry of Construction

1. Mr. Zheng Wenliang (Coordinator with local authority)

Senior Engineer, Department of Urban and Rural Planning

Ministry of Construction

Beijing, China

2. Mr. Eric Yao (Coordinator)

Program officer, Department of International Relations

Ministry of Construction

Beijing, China

Notes: This paper appears in the Volume IV of "The Current", the public policy journal of the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs