300,000 evacuated as Yangtze goes on rising

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DRIVING NORTH along the top of the Wujin Dyke towards the city of Wuhan, the waters of the swollen Yangtze lapped greedily at what could be seen of the muddy left-hand bank. Much lower on the other side, at the bottom of the grassy right-hand flank of the dyke, were the front- line anti-flood look-outs.

Every 120 feet or so, mile after mile, a man on a chair sits under an umbrella, facing the dyke, watching for leaks.

"We sit and watch in case some water comes through," said a 37-year-old farmer, Xu Guanxin, working a 12-hour shift. In the 38C sunshine, it seemed strangely peaceful, perhaps because of the large number of umbrellas sporting the "Wall's" logo.

"To live or die with the dykes," said one of the banners along the embankment. Did Mr Xu not feel nervous with the height of the Yangtze more than 20 feet above him just over the other side of the dyke? "Generally we are not afraid," he said. "So far it is okay."

With the middle reaches of the Yangtze in Hubei province notching up new height records yesterday , the flood fight is increasingly becoming a matter of life and death. The flood season's fourth crest is due to reach Wuhan this weekend.

About 120 miles upstream from Wuhan, near Shashi city, a dyke collapsed early yesterday, flooding about 50,000 people out of their homes, according to Hubei radio. A further five small dykes in the region were destroyed on purpose in order to relieve pressure on the main river.

Water levels at Shashi rose so high that a massive evacuation of more than 300,000 people by last night was separately under way as China's central government pondered whether it would be necessary to break a major dyke today to divert the rising floodwaters from the most vulnerable parts of the Jingjiang section of the Yangtze river embankment.

Details of the collapsing dykes remain difficult to come by. On the Wujin dyke yesterday, one taxi was bringing a family of four from Paizhou, the site of last Saturday's dyke collapse. The Chinese government said last week just 13 people had died in the breach. Lao Yimin, a 52-year-old retired man, who lost his house in Paizhou, said: "Soldiers were going towards the dyke. The water just washed them away. I think maybe 300 to 400 were dead in the villages. As for soldiers, possibly more." He said he knew villagers who had died.

In the villages and towns along the Wujin Dyke, it is impossible to tell rumour from reality. "The old and the kids could not escape quickly enough," said one man. "Paizhou could not manage all the cremations so some of the corpses were sent to another cremation place," said another. It does seem to be fact that some TV footage shot in Paizhou by the local channel was deemed too awful to show.

About 12 miles north of Paizhou, the residents of Jinshuijia were getting on with life as best they could. Along the main street, life seemed almost normal until one gazed out at the vast lake which the Yangtze had become at this point. Wang Li, 32, pointed to the roof of her house, the few rows of red tiles being all one could see. "I am living in a temporary home," she said.

A five-minute journey by rowing boat brought one to a small sandbank sticking out from the water, about 20ft by 15ft. For more than a month, two families have been camping on this mound, their makeshift beds and cooking pots protected from sun and rain by a poorly mounted piece of plastic awning. A group of chickens ran about on the small island. "It is uncomfortable and inconvenient but we have to manage it," she said.

Many of Ms Wang's family belongings were still in the submerged house. "When the water came higher and higher, we moved our furniture and things to higher places in the house but then could not do this any more. We left the things that were durable in the water and moved the clothes," said Ms Wang. Next door to her makeshift tent home, a row of two-storey homes are half submerged so that boats now pull up at first floor balconies.

Further towards Wuhan was the town of Jinkou. At one point here, the Yangtze level sits just 12 inches below the top of a new wall of sandbags. A small stream of water seeped up through the road. Mr Xia, 30, was manning the watch post by this vulnerable section. "The water is still continuing to rise. The crest should come on Saturday," he said. Will it overflow? "No," he promised. He has been watching this section since it was built three weeks ago.

In Wuhan, a city of 7 million about 20 miles up the dyke, a plaque in the river marks the high point of floods of 1954. Just 18 inches lower, the water level is still rising.