The Worst Floods in History

Water can be incredibly dangerous, a powerful force strong enough to wipe entire cities off the map. Floods are one of nature's scariest natural disasters, and the worst floods in history have swept millions to their doom. People killed in floods often drown, but that is not the only source of death. A lot of fatalities are caused by the aftermath of the flood. Starvation due to famine or diseases spread via water contamination have claimed many flood victims historically. 

Flood deaths are a common threat throughout the world, with some places being particularly prone to floods. The deadliest floods in history brought havoc and chaos on towns and cities. Flood waters can disrupt entire ecosystems, destroy economies, and send advanced societies back to the stone age in an instant. These floods live on as legends, an ominous reminder that we should never take the power of nature for granted. To learn more, browse this list of the worst floods around the world. 


  • 1931 Yangtze River Flood

    Date: August 18, 1931
    Location: China
    Death Toll: Estimated 3.7 million 

    Considered to be one of the worst natural disasters in human history, the great Yangtze River flood of 1931 was one of the deadliest single events of all time. After a period of extreme rainfall, the highly populated Yangtze River basin began to flood. The waters would spread to cover an area of roughly 500-square-miles, forcing half a million people to evacuate. 

    The biggest killer of this flood wasn't the water, however. Most deaths occurred due to famine and disease. Rice fields were completely obliterated by the flood, leading to mass starvation in many cities in southern China. The polluted river water also spread infectious diseases throughout the population. Typhoid and dysentery ran rampant, and China's government was ill prepared to deal with the fallout because of an ongoing civil war.

  • 1887 Yellow River Flood
    Photo: Leruswing / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    1887 Yellow River Flood

    Date: September 28, 1887
    Location: China
    Death Toll: 900,000 - 2,000,000

    The Hwang Ho, popularly known as the Yellow River in English, is historically the deadliest river on Earth. It has even earned the nickname "China's Sorrow" due to the immense toll it has taken on the local population. The 3,000 mile-long river snakes across Northern China from its source in the Qinghai mountains, way above sea level. 

    In September of 1887, heavy rain saw the river rise above the dikes meant to protect the local population from rising flood waters. The dike failure led to the flooding of 50,000 square miles of land, displacing two million people, and killing 900,000 in the blink of an eye. Famine and disease would subsequently take as many lives as the flood waters themselves in one of the worst humanitarian crises of all time. 

  • 1938 Yellow River Flood
    Photo: 中华民国史画 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    1938 Yellow River Flood

    Date: June 1938
    Location: China
    Death Toll: 500,000 - 800,000

    While most floods can be considered natural disasters, the 1938 flood of the Yellow River was a deliberate act of warfare. The Chinese had been fighting a brutal Japanese invasion, one that threatened to bring an end to thousands of years of Chinese history. As a last-ditch effort, Commander Chiang Kai-shek ordered the destruction of the river's dike system. This unleashed a wave of flood waters that would spread across the country for nine years. The act is believed to be the most devastating environmental attack of all time, both in terms of environmental destruction and loss of human life. 

    Four million people were forced from their homes as the flood spread. The water was not be contained until 1947, years after the Japanese were defeated. The Chinese government denied their involvement in the flooding until news broke in 1945.

  • 1975 Banqiao Dam Failure

    Date: August 8, 1975
    Location: China
    Death Toll: 171,000 - 230,000

    The Banqiao dam, located on the Ru River, failed on the night of August 8th, 1975. A massive typhoon, one of the region's most powerful on record, dropped an unprecedented amount of rain on the area. There are reports that rain was coming down so hard that local birds were being killed mid-flight, littering the ground below with their corpses. The region received more rain in one day than they normally got in a year, and it proved too much for the Banqiao dam. 

    When the dam broke, it sent a 20-foot tidal wave across the region. The massive failure of this dam set off a chain reaction and led to the breaking of 62 additional dams. The flooding was catastrophic and led to localized famines and plagues. There are reports of people eating the rotting carcasses of animals floating down the river in order to survive. The most unfortunate part of this whole story is that it didn't need to happen. One hydrologist who worked on the project, Chen Xing, had alerted his superiors to multiple weaknesses and design flaws in the dam. He even provided solutions to the issues, but he was removed from the project and criticized for his insubordination.