The rising South China Sea and the overstressed Pearl River network lie about 3 feet or so below much of this new multitrillion-dollar development — and they are poised to drown decades of progress, scrambling global supply chains and raising prices on goods.

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GUANGZHOU, China — The rains brought torrents, pouring into basements and malls, the water swiftly rising a foot and a half.

The city of Dongguan, a manufacturing center in the world’s most dynamic industrial region, was hit especially hard by the downpour in May 2014. More than 100 factories and shops were inundated.

Next door in Guangzhou, an ancient, mammoth port city of 13 million, helicopters and a fleet of 80 boats had to be sent to rescue trapped residents. Tens of thousands lost their homes, and 53 square miles of nearby farmland were ruined. The cost of repairs topped $100 million.

Chen Rongbo, who lived in the city, saw the flood coming. He tried to scramble to safety on the second floor of his house, carrying his 6-year-old granddaughter. He slipped. The flood swept both of them away.

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Flooding has been a plague for centuries in southern China’s Pearl River Delta. So even the rains that May, the worst in the area in years, soon drifted from the headlines. There was no official hand-wringing about what caused the floods or how climate change might bring more extreme storms.

A generation ago, this was mostly farmland. Three vital rivers leading to the South China Sea, along with crisscrossing tributaries, made the low-lying delta a fertile plain, famous for rice. Guangzhou, formerly Canton, had more than 1 million people, but by the 1980s, China set out to transform the whole region.

Rushing to catch up after decades of stagnation, China built a gargantuan collection of cities the size of nations with barely a pause to consider their toll on the environment, much less the future impact of global warming. Today, the region is a goliath of industry, with a population exceeding 42 million.

But while prosperity reshaped the social and cultural geography of the delta, it didn’t fundamentally alter the topography. Here, as elsewhere, breakneck development comes up against the growing threat of climate change. Economically, Guangzhou now has more to lose from climate change than any other city on the planet, according to a World Bank report.

While it is difficult to attribute any single storm or heat wave to climate change, researchers say there is abundant evidence that the effects of climate change can already be seen: in higher water levels, increasing temperatures and ever more severe storms.

Climate change not only poses a menace to those who live and work here, or to the immense concentration of wealth and investment. It is also a threat to a world that has grown dependent on everything produced in the area’s factories.

The rising South China Sea and the overstressed Pearl River network lie about 3 feet or so below much of this new multitrillion-dollar development — and they are poised to drown decades of progress, scrambling global supply chains and raising prices on goods.

China is crippled by air pollution, linked to local emissions from coal-fired power plants, steel factories and cars. New research shows that rising temperatures and stagnant air resulting from climate change — caused largely by worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide — are exacerbating China’s smog crisis, which has contributed to millions of premature deaths.

The Chinese government has become an outspoken voice on climate change. President Xi Jinping, who met last week with President Donald Trump, has urged the signatories of the 2015 Paris climate accord to follow through on their pledge, while state-run Chinese media has criticized the Trump administration for “brazenly shirking its responsibility on climate change.”

China is now the world leader in domestic investment in renewable energy, and over the past decade central authorities in Beijing have made environmental performance a higher priority for civil servants. But stronger mandates haven’t overcome the pace of expansion, a decentralized fiscal system, lax enforcement and a culture that frequently pits growth against green. The country continues to consume as much coal as the rest of the world combined, and to increase its steel capacity.

In Guangdong province, all the new cars, the concrete and the belching factories spike temperatures. This endangers sick and elderly people, creates urban heat islands and incubates pandemics like dengue fever. A dengue outbreak slammed Guangzhou, the province’s largest city, in 2014, afflicting 47,000 people.

On top of this are the floods and tidal surges, worsened by a mix of increasingly severe storms and land sinking under the sheer weight of development and amplifying the impact of rising waters.

The flooding and surges overwhelm hastily planned, often shoddily constructed, buildings and neighborhoods with overstressed sewage systems in poorly conceived areas of urban sprawl. Chinese authorities like to show off the region’s shiny new office towers and airports, which generate cash and enhance the country’s prestige. Fixing costly sewers that no one sees is not a high priority.

In the meantime, the costs of inaction rise like the tides and temperatures.

Natural defenses paved over

Shenzhen was still a sleepy fishing village of some 35,000 during the late 1970s when Chinese authorities declared it a Special Economic Zone, bringing in huge investments and waves of migrants from the countryside who have helped make what today is a metropolis of 11 million.

Cai Yanfeng, 36, was recalling her childhood, when she would cross the street up the block from where the Starbucks is now to play in the mangrove swamps hugging the bay. Today, the street she used to cross is the size of a U.S. interstate. Where the mangroves started, not far from the Starbucks, a hospital campus flanks a shopping mall. The mangroves were ripped out and bulldozed, replaced by landfill, and smothered by acres of concrete, asphalt, office towers, high-rise apartments and industrial development.

The destruction of the wetlands where Cai once played is one of the region’s biggest climate challenges. Mangroves provide a natural buffer from the sea, shielding the coastline, reducing the impact of waves and rising water, filtering out salt that can infiltrate freshwater reserves, absorbing exceptional quantities of carbon and lowering ambient temperatures. But about 70 percent of the mangrove forests in Shenzhen are gone. And their disappearance is accelerating: 2,100 acres paved over between 1979 and 1985; 6,700 more acres during the next decade; thousands and thousands more since.

Recently, Chinese officials announced plans to add another 21 square miles of landfill along Shenzhen’s coast. The problem isn’t just the destruction of mangroves. Landfill is notoriously vulnerable to rising waters. When Hurricane Sandy socked Lower Manhattan in 2012, it swamped streets built on landfill, peaking where the island’s long-obscured natural shore had once been. In the end, nature always finds its level. Along the Huishen Highway in Shenzhen, rising seawater recently eroded a stretch of landfill three football fields long, leaving a shambles of asphalt and concrete. When a typhoon pounded the delta in 2008, one-third of the sea wall in Zhuhai crumbled, letting water reach the city.

By contrast, Zhuhai’s nature preserve, where the mangroves had not been cut down, absorbed the brunt of the water and survived.

The trillion-dollar question

“Air pollution is a direct challenge to people; it’s right in their face,” said Ma Jun, founder and director of the citizen-led Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing. “So they’ve made noise, and things have changed in terms of air-pollution policy by the Chinese authorities. On the other hand, climate change is happening at a different speed. Sea-level rise is not something you easily notice.”

This is the challenge everywhere. Storms happen all the time. So people don’t automatically chalk them up to climate change.

“There is no obvious, short-term solution to climate-change problems, no clear strategy everybody agrees is what needs to happen to offset climate change,” Ma said. “So there’s reluctance to address the issue. What’s the business model?”

That’s a trillion-dollar question, according to the World Bank, which projected the potential cost of damage to coastal cities worldwide from rising seas to be near that figure. It estimates China is already losing 1.4 percent of its annual GDP to climate change.

Exodus and opportunity

Not incidentally, some factories have been leaving Guangdong province. Rising wages and threats of stiffer pollution standards have prompted less scrupulous manufacturers to move their businesses to countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, where regulations are weaker. In turn, those countries are repeating mistakes, related to climate-change preparedness, that China is paying for now.

But this exodus, seeking short-term profits, has also created an opportunity for China. Planners and environmentalists talk about a chance to rebrand Guangdong province as a global leader in green, cutting-edge industrial technology and urbanism.

China recently said it wanted to create a national market for greenhouse-gas quotas, suggesting it was increasingly persuaded by the financial argument for climate adaptation.

Prosperity will ultimately belong to cities and nations that find ways to capitalize on strategies of resilience against the inevitable impact of climate change.

Flooding is not an insurmountable hurdle, said Robert J. Nicholls, a professor of coastal engineering at the University of Southampton in England.

The Chinese can build smarter cities with restored waterways and waterfronts, flood-proof buildings, wide-reaching air-pollution controls, earlier warning systems, levees that double as parks, retention ponds that provide recreation, neighborhoods less dependent on cars.

“The challenge for the Chinese, as it is for so many others,” he said, “is taking the long view.”