People made homeless by the 1931 floods on the Yangtze River huddle together. The floods, one of the worst natural disasters in history.

Photograph courtesy German Federal Archives Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-12269. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

Download this file

  • On August 18, 1931, the major rivers of eastern China flooded disastrously into nearby towns and farms. The Huai, Huang (Yellow), and Yangtze rivers all overflowed their banks. While many died from drowning or being crushed by debris others starved or were or felled from the effects of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhus. Millions were left injured or homeless.

    The floods were the result of unusual weather patterns and decades of poor river management. A long period of drought was followed by a severe winter, including record snowfall and heavy rains. This raised the water level of the rivers, whose beds had already become higher than the surrounding land. Silt had built up on the riverbeds as engineers constructed earthen levees and dikes along river banks, blocking the river’s natural flood plain. In 1931, pressure from the unusually heavy river burst the levees.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    cholera Noun

    infectious, sometimes fatal disease that harms the intestines.

    construct Verb

    to build or erect.

    debris Noun

    remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

    dike Noun

    a barrier, usually a natural or artificial wall used to regulate water levels.

    Encyclopedic Entry: dike
    drought Noun

    period of greatly reduced precipitation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: drought
    drown Verb

    to die or suffocate in a liquid.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    flood Verb

    to overflow or cover in water or another liquid.

    flood plain Noun

    flat area alongside a stream or river that is subject to flooding.

    Encyclopedic Entry: flood plain
    illness Noun

    disease or sickness.

    levee Noun

    bank of a river, raised either naturally or constructed by people.

    Encyclopedic Entry: levee
    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    river management Noun

    the art and science of controlling the flow, path, and power of rivers.

    silt Noun

    small sediment particles.

    Encyclopedic Entry: silt
    typhus Noun

    highly infectious and sometimes deadly disease with symptoms of itching sores and severe headache, caused by lice.

    weather pattern Noun

    repeating or predictable changes in the Earth's atmosphere, such as winds, precipitation, and temperatures.