Flooding has affected at least 30 million people in China so far this year, including at least 20 deaths in the past few days, raising questions about the country’s preparation for catastrophic weather fueled by climate change.

China has invested billions of dollars in recent years to protect against extreme rainfall after a 2012 flood in Beijing killed 79 people and prompted Chinese President Xi Jinping to call for building "cities like sponges.” The idea is simple: Using rooftop gardens, permeable pavements, underground storage tanks and other sponge-like features to soak up heavy precipitation and then slowly release it into rivers or reservoirs. Since then, dozens of Chinese cities from Beijing in the north to Chongqing in the south have pledged to make the transformation.

But the climbing death toll in northern China since last Saturday has sounded the alarm of whether these tactics are fit for purpose as rising global temperatures supercharge more intense rainfall events. Worldwide it’s becoming increasingly difficult for communities, from Vermont villages to London neighborhoods, to keep up with the fast changes in precipitation.