What Are Some Devastating Floods in World History?

The Yellow River in China is responsible for three of the most devastating floods in world history. Its floods killed over one million people on three separate occasions.

While the Yellow River floods frequently, the most damaging instances occurred in 1887, 1931 and 1938. These three floods had death tolls, respectively, of two million people, four million people and one million people. Many deaths resulted not from the flood waters themselves but from starvation and disease caused by the floods. The floods destroyed rice farms on the banks of the Yellow River, which supported the regional population centers of Wuhan and Nanjing. Water-borne diseases caused widespread death as well. These diseases were carried both by the flood waters and by refugees fleeing to the cities.

The unusually deadly floods produced by the Yellow River are partially attributable to sediments present in the water, which can periodically block the course of the river. This can cause the river to flood or to divert itself through residential and farming areas. While this sediment is usually removed, the civil war in China during the 1930s caused both sides to neglect the river. As of 2015, a system of dikes helps prevent flooding in the low-lying sections of the river.