With 70 percent of the world’s surface being covered by water, it’s no surprise that floods are among the most common natural disasters. Some floods simply leave a few inches of water in the basement, while others cover roofs and leave thousands homeless. Loss of life both during and after the flood, billions of dollars in property damage, and famine and pestilence after the waters have receded can add up to sheer devastation. The ten worst floods in history are listed here, in ascending order.
10. 1212, North Sea Flood, the Netherlands
Death Toll: 60,000
In this catastrophe, the sea rose to overwhelm the dikes and flattened most of the Noord-Holland region. As there was no early-warning technology at the time, no one was evacuated and over 60,000 people drowned. The morale of the country suffered terribly and it took the Dutch over two years to rebuild all that had been destroyed.
9. 1287, St Lucia’s Flood, the Netherlands and Northern Germany
Death Toll: 50,000 to 80,000
The day after St Lucia’s Day, one of the dikes protecting the Netherlands and part of northern Germany gave way after being pummeled by an enormous sea tide. With no early-warning system in place, no one was evacuated and the death toll was enormous. Entire villages were flattened by a wall of water, leaving no hope for survival for those trapped inside.
8. 1911, Yangtze River Flood, China
Death Toll: 100,000
The Yangtze River flooded due to heavy rains in 1911, leaving the plains that surround it underwater. This area of China is notorious for hosting some of the worst floods in history, and over 100,000 people lost their lives. A little more than twenty years later, an even worse flood happened in the same area.
7. 1971, Hanoi and the Red River Delta, North Vietnam
Death Toll: 100,000+
Occurring in the middle of the Vietnam War, this flood has mysterious origins. Although the area along the Red River Delta has historically been prone to flooding, the Vietnamese have a system of dikes that is over 1,000 years old and continually maintained and improved. Due to the war raging, there is little to no information about why or how the flood occurred, but the devastation lasted for years afterward. This is largely regarded as one of the worst floods in history due to the devastation suffered by the already-war-torn citizenry of Vietnam.
6. 1530, St. Felix’s Flood, Netherlands
Death Toll: 100,000 to 125,000
While details are sketchy for this long-ago flood, the impact of the flood gave this saint’s day the nickname of Evil Sunday. In total, 18 villages and a city, Reimerswaal, were swept away by a massive, storm-induced wall of water. Illustrations from the time period show only the tops of buildings poking up from what resembles a massive lake. The Dutch, famous for their dikes, lost over 100,000 citizens.
5. 1935, The Yangtze River Flood, China
Death Toll: 140,000 to 160,000
The fact that China was the setting for the five worst floods in history says a lot about its topography. The flat basins and low altitude along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers mean that certain regions of China have been fighting water back with dams, dikes, and irrigation channels for centuries. In 1954, after a long and incredibly brutal rainy season, the Yangtze conquered its safeguards and buried over 40,000 citizens under 44 meters of water. Soil and irrigation channels were destroyed, leaving widespread hunger and disease behind.
4. 1975, The Banqiao Dam Failure and Cascade, China
Death Toll: 90,000 to 230,000
As Typhoon Nina swept through the region, the Banqiao Dam was already under considerable strain. On August 8, a wave of water ten kilometers wide and three to seven meters high was unleashed when the dam reached critical. While the Banqiao was the largest dam to fail due to the storm, a total of 63 dams throughout the region failed or were intentionally opened or destroyed. This cascade deluge destroyed crops, the soil, and irrigation systems. 26,000 people drowned and it is estimated that another 145,000 people died from the resulting disease and famine that followed.
3. 1938, Second Yellow River Flood, China
Death Toll: 500,000 to 700,000
While the first Yellow River flood was a product of nature, the 1938 flood was entirely man-made and was used as a tool by the Nationalist Government to halt Japanese forces during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This controversial move outright drowned entire villages and left over three million people homeless, making it the only one of the worst floods in history caused intentionally. Crops were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people died in the continued chaos exacerbated by the ongoing conflict. Even after the flood waters receded, silt had destroyed the soil beneath, creating a quagmire unsuitable for crops.
2. 1887, Yellow River Flood, China
Death Toll: 900,000 to 2,000,000
The Yellow River runs elevated through a series of broad, flat plains and is normally controlled by a series of dikes. In September of 1887, torrential rainfall broke through and flooded over 500,000 square miles, leaving over two million people homeless and destroying the food supply.
1. 1931, The Flooding of Central China
Death Toll: 2,500,000 to 3,700,000
Following a long period of drought from 1928 to 1930, the skies opened on central China in the summer of 1931. In July and August, over two feet of rain fell along the Yangtze River. On August 25, dikes along the banks of Gaoyou Lake breached, drowning over 200,000 as they lay sleeping. The high water crest, recorded on August 19, was 53 feet above normal. Acts of cannibalism, infanticide, and the selling of females were reported, and millions died in the aftermath from typhus and cholera.
While floods can happen almost anywhere in the world, the worst floods in history happened in China and the Netherlands due to the low altitude and flat plains. Hopefully, bigger and stronger dikes and dams will stop tragedies like these from ever occurring again.