Water levels at China’s Three Gorges dam are at their highest ever as months of torrential rain overwhelm the country’s flood defences and threaten its economic recovery.

In the last few months southern China has suffered its heaviest rainfall since 1998 when floods killed more than 3,000. The upper reaches of the Yangtze river are facing their fifth round of flooding this summer, in what Chinese state media has dubbed a “once-in-a-century” event.

The flow rate of water into the massive Three Gorges dam was at 75,000 cubic metres a second on Thursday, topping the previous 2012 record of 71,200, according to Chinese state media. 

State broadcaster CCTV live-streamed images of muddy water geysering through the opened sluices of the dam, which were discharging at a rate of 49,200 cu m/sec, also the highest in history.

The deluge has tested a massive network of tens of thousands of dams and levees built by the Chinese government along the Yangtze River and its tributaries to minimise damage from annual floods.

The Three Gorges dam, which cost about Rmb200bn ($29bn) to build over two decades and displaced more than a million people, is the centrepiece of a system that some environmentalists say has not been worth the investment in the face of extreme weather caused by rising global temperatures.

Rescuers evacuate flood-affected residents following heavy rain in Neijiang in China’s southwestern Sichuan province © AFP/Getty
An aerial view of the Leshan Giant Buddha surrounded by floodwaters following heavy rains in Leshan in China’s southwestern Sichuan province © AFP/Getty

Fan Xiao, a Chinese geologist and longtime critic of the dam, said the severity of the floods showed how the dam has proved less effective than its proposers hoped. “The reservoir’s capacity is not large enough to handle record flood levels… and an accumulation of silt has further reduced that flood control capacity,” he said.

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As of Wednesday, the floods had displaced 490,000 people in Sichuan, damaged 165,000 hectares of cropland, destroyed 2,155 buildings and caused Rmb16.4bn ($2.37bn) in direct economic losses, according to statistics from the official national disaster database.

Disruption to farming in Sichuan, China’s leading pig producer, threatens to further hamper efforts to rebuild China’s hog herd, which has yet to recover from mass culls in the face of an outbreak of African Swine fever last year.

Companies based near the upstream Yangtze in southwestern Sichuan province and Chongqing city on Wednesday halted operations after factories were submerged.

Some of the worst damage was in Leshan, a city in southern Sichuan — a tourist destination famous for its 71-metre tall Buddha statue. On Wednesday, flood waters reached the toes of the giant carving for the first time since 1949. 

Shanghai-listed Shenghe Resources Holding, a rare metals miner with factories in Leshan, estimated losses of between Rmb390m to Rmb520m ($56m-$75m).

“The Leshan factory district was under two metres of water, its walls had been submerged, to say nothing of production materials,” Shenghe Resource secretary of the board Guo Xiaolei told Chinese state media on Wednesday.

Via Financial Times