Locals have a saying: “When the Buddha’s feet are washed, Leshan cannot sleep.” The city in the south-western province of Sichuan has reason to be fearful. Leshan lies at the confluence of three tributaries of the Yangzi river. Centuries ago its residents carved a stone statue of the Buddha into a cliff face. It towers 70 metres high, overlooking the swift currents. In August 2020 its giant toes were bathed in river water for the first time since the Communist Party seized power in 1949. Thousands of residents suffered in the flood.
But it is not only the ancient threat of rivers in spate that unnerves Leshan. It is also the way the city itself has grown. By the time of last year’s disaster, its built-up area, including satellite towns, was more than half as big again as it was in 2000. City planners had failed to make due provision for floodwater runoff.