Asia's Worst Natural Disasters

Tsunami on Ao Nang Beach, Thailand, 2004

Jeremy Horner / Getty Images 

Asia is a large and seismically active continent. It also has the largest human population of any continent, so it's not surprising that many of Asia's worst natural disasters have claimed more lives than any others in history.

Asia has also witnessed some disastrous events that were similar to natural disasters, or began as natural disasters, but were created or exacerbated in large part by government policies or other human actions. Thus, events like the 1959-1961 famine surrounding China's "Great Leap Forward" are not listed here, because they were not truly natural disasters.

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1876-79 Famine | North China, 9 million dead

Man walking through dry crop field.
China Photos / Getty Images

After a protracted drought, a serious famine hit northern China during the late Qing Dynasty years of 1876-79. The provinces of Henan, Shandong, Shaanxi, Hebei, and Shanxi all saw massive crop failures and famine conditions. An estimated 9,000,000 or more people perished due to this drought, which was caused at least in part by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation weather pattern.

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1931 Yellow River Floods | Central China, 4 million

Men with canoes during flood.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In waves of flooding following a three-year drought, an estimated 3,700,000 to 4,000,000 people died along the Yellow River in central China between May and August of 1931. The death toll includes victims of drowning, disease, or famine-related to the flooding.

What caused this horrific flooding? The soil in the river basin was baked hard after years of drought, so it could not absorb the run-off from record-setting snows in the mountains. On top of the melt-water, the monsoon rains were heavy that year, and an incredible seven typhoons lashed central China that summer. As a result, more than 20,000,000 acres of farmland along the Yellow River was inundated; the Yangtze River also burst its banks, killing at least 145,000 more people.

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1887 Yellow River Flood | Central China, 900,000

Ships on the flooded Yellow River in China, 1887.
George Eastman Kodak House / Getty Images

Flooding beginning in September of 1887 sent the Yellow River (Huang He)over its dikes, inundating 130,000 sq km (50,000 sq miles) of central China. Historical records indicate that river broke through in Henan Province, near Zhengzhou city. An estimated 900,000 people died, either by drowning, disease, or starvation in the aftermath of the flood.

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1556 Shaanxi Earthquake | Central China, 830,000

Loess hills in central China, formed by the accumulation of fine windblown soil particles.
Loess hills in central China, formed by the accumulation of fine windblown soil particles.

Till Niermann/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 

Also known as the Jianjing Great Earthquake, the Shaanxi Earthquake of January 23, 1556, was the deadliest earthquake ever recorded. (It is named for the reigning Jianjing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty.) Centered in the Wei River Valley, it impacted parts of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Anhui, Hunan, and Jiangsu Provinces, and killed around 830,000 people.

Many of the victims lived in underground homes (yaodong), tunneled into the loess; when the earthquake struck, most such homes collapsed onto their occupants. The city of Huaxian lost 100% of its structures to the quake, which also opened vast crevasses in the soft soil and triggered massive landslides. Modern estimates of the Shaanxi Earthquake's magnitude put it at just 7.9 on the Richter Scale--far from the most powerful ever recorded--but the dense populations and unstable soils of central China combined to give it the largest death toll ever.

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1970 Bhola Cyclone | Bangladesh, 500,000

Children walking along a flooded riverbank.
Children wade through coastal flood waters after the Bhola Cyclone in East Pakistan, 1970. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

On November 12, 1970, the deadliest tropical cyclone, ever, struck East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the state of West Bengal in India. In the storm surge that flooded the Ganges River Delta, some 500,000 to 1 million people would drown.

The Bhola Cyclone was a category 3 storm--the same strength as Hurricane Katrina when it struck New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. The cyclone produced a storm surge 10 meters (33 feet) high, which moved up the river and flooded surrounding farms. The government of Pakistan, located 3,000 miles away in Karachi, was slow to respond to this disaster in East Pakistan. In part because of this failure, civil war soon followed, and East Pakistan broke away to form the nation of Bangladesh in 1971.

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1839 Coringa Cyclone | Andhra Pradesh, India, 300,000

View of cyclone from space

NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

Another November storm, the November 25, 1839, Coringa Cyclone, was the second-most deadly cyclonic storm ever. It struck Andra Pradesh, on India's central east coast, sending a 40-foot storm surge onto the low-lying region. The port city of Coringa was decimated, along with some 25,000 boats and ships. Approximately 300,000 people died in the storm.

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2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami | Fourteen Countries, 260,000

Above view of flooded city after 2004 tsunami damage from the Indonesia quake and tsunami

Patrick M. Bonafede / US Navy / Getty Images

On December 26, 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia triggered a tsunami that rippled across the entire Indian Ocean basin. Indonesia itself saw the most devastation, with an estimated death toll of 168,000, but the wave killed people in thirteen other countries around the ocean rim, some as far away as Somalia.

The total death toll likely was in the range of 230,000 to 260,000. India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand were also hard-hit, and the military junta in Myanmar (Burma) refused to release that country's death toll.

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1976 Tangshan Earthquake | Northeastern China, 242,000

Building ruins after Great Tangshan Earthquake in 1976.

Keystone View / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the city of Tangshan, 180 kilometers east of Beijing, on July 28, 1976. According to the Chinese government's official count, about 242,000 people were killed, although the actual death toll may have been closer to 500,000 or even 700,000.

The bustling industrial city of Tangshan, pre-earthquake population 1 million, was built on alluvial soil from the Luanhe River. During the earthquake, this soil liquefied, resulting in the collapse of 85% of Tangshan's buildings. As a result, the Great Tangshan Earthquake was one of the deadliest quakes ever recorded.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Asia's Worst Natural Disasters." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, July 29). Asia's Worst Natural Disasters. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Asia's Worst Natural Disasters." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).