Battle to save flood city

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THE Chinese industrial city of Jiujiang was yesterday fighting to repair a 130ft breach in a dyke wall which sent Yangtze floodwaters gushing through the streets. Some 30,000 people were working to plug the collapse, which has left parts of the city under seven feet of water. The dyke needs to be rebuilt before a flood crest reaches that stretch of the Yangtze in a few days' time.

Eight boats loaded with stones have been sunk in an attempt to block the hole, with bags of coal, soybeans and 2,000 tonnes of rice dumped on top. The breach, near the city's ship docks, opened up on Friday afternoon, but yesterday the official Xinhua news agency said the gap widened further when a rescue ship collided with the dyke, demolishing another section.

The breach at Jiujiang, in Jiangxi province, is the worst in a city so far this flood season. It was a sharp reminder to Wuhan, the industrial capital of Hubei province 100 miles upstream, of how vulnerable Yangtze port cities are to any collapse of the flood defences. Over the years, sedimentation has raised the river bed high above the surrounding plains so that at Wuhan, for instance, the top of the flooded river is about 15ft higher than the city with residents bracing for the new flood crest to arrive overnight.

During the day, at the Longwangmiao dyke, right in the commercial centre of Wuhan where the rain-swollen Han river flows into the Yangtze, teams of workers were continuously reinforcing the main riverside embankment with sandbags and shovels. Traffic has been banned from the road beside the dyke and water was seeping up through drainage systems which normally flow into the river.

The city's mayor has ordered that at least one person should be posted every 30 feet on the dyke, keeping a 24-hour lookout for leaks. Ten aircraft were also flying in soldiers to Hubei. But despite the emergency precautions, Wuhan residents were universally sanguine yesterday that the central government would choose to sacrifice rural regions upstream if the Yangtze seriously threatened an industrial city the size of Wuhan. So far only secondary dykes inland have been destroyed to relieve pressure on the main river dykes, but Peking has made it clear it is willing to breach the upstream main Yangtze dyke if necessary.

Last night, officials in Shashi city, about 120 miles upstream of Wuhan, were anxiously monitoring water levels, poised to open the floodgates or blow a hole in the dyke and inundate a huge area of Gongan county, across the river to the south. By yesterday afternoon, more than 300,000 Gongan farmers, many of them distraught at having to abandon their homes, had been moved from the area, bringing with them livestock and what possessions they could carry. At one point yesterday, flood control officials said the water was just two inches from the point at which they would open the floodgates - an option not employed since the 1954 floods which killed 30,000 people.

It is rural people who are bearing the brunt of the flood damage. Secondary dyke collapses have wiped out homes, and millions of people are camped on top of dykes. At Jianli, halfway between Shashi and Wuhan, at least two secondary dykes were destroyed with Wuhan in mind.

Worse may still be to come, with torrential downpours in the upper reaches of the Yangtze which will create yet another flood crest. In the upstream city of Chongqing, Sichuan province, 41 people died and another 41 are missing after rain caused mudflows on Friday. With four weeks left of the flood season, the death toll of more than 2,000 is set to increase substantially.

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