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Flooding caused massive environmental damage in medieval China

A series of floods struck the Yellow River between the years 1048 and 1128 causing massive environmental damage to northern regions of China.

The first major flood hit the Hebei region, in the lower reaches of the Yellow River in 1048, followed by an average of one flood every two years for the following eighty years. The floods caused major depopulation in the region, with the millions of people being killed or forced to flee. Rich agricultural lands were destroyed as the Yellow River broke over its northern bank Throughout this period the river actually changed its course, moving northwards and merging with other rivers.

One Chinese writer, Ren Boyu (1047-1119) expressed how disastrous the situation was in Hebei: “In Yongling Commandery and to it north, 30 to 40 percent of the resident survived. In northern Cangzhou, 10 to 20 percent survived. The situation in other prefectures is generally the same. So desolate are these districts that for the span of a thousand li there was little sign of human activity.”

Meanwhile, the waters brought heavy silting, which destroyed other rivers and stopped shipping traffic. The Chinese government attempted to keep dredging the rivers, but this proved ineffective and was criticized by contemporaries. One minister, Wen Yanbo, complained, “Even very stupid men living along the riverside all know that the river-dredging harrow does no good.”

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