China braced for new floods crisis

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JUST AS one flood peak passes, another one surges down the Yangtze. China is facing a critical weekend with water levels in the middle reaches of the river rising to emergency heights as a new flood crest heads toward the most dangerous section of the main embankment.

Record flood levels at Shashi city are expected today to reach the point at which central government rules would permit main dykes to be breached on purpose, flooding rural plains in Hubei province in order to safeguard the Jinjiang embankment and the city of Wuhan downstream.

Zhao Chunming, deputy director of the general office of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters, said yesterday: "We still have to see whether there is a real need for flood diversion ... People in those areas are prepared. We will try our best not to divert water unless it is absolutely necessary."

The Jinjiang embankment is the most vulnerable section of the mainstream Yangtze and is scheduled to receive the crest - the fourth this summer - this weekend. Hubei announced a state of emergency yesterday.

The huge human and economic toll of China's floods so far this year was finally revealed by the government yesterday. More than 2,000 people had died in the floods by 3 August, the highest number for this point in the year since 1991. Fan Baojun, vice-chairman of the China National Committee for Disaster Alleviation, said: "Ninety per cent of deaths were caused by landslides which swallowed houses and villages. Some people died when struck by electricity or in accidents."

Most of the severe damage has been along the Yangtze. Some 13.8 million people have been relocated because of flooding, 5.6 million houses destroyed, and another 12 million homes damaged or flooded. Unknown millions are camped out in make-shift tents along the tops of embankments, often staying near their submerged properties in order to ward off thieves.

The devastation of agricultural cropland has also been huge, with 4.8 million hectares of crops wiped out and another 13 million hectares seriously affected. Mr Fan said 240 million people across China had been affected by floods in some way.

Although the weather has played its part, officials yesterday also admitted that excessive agricultural cultivation had exacerbated the flood impact. There have been two significant breaches of embankments so far, one in Jiayu county last Saturday and the other in Jiujiang city on Tuesday. Both of these were so-called "protective dykes", built by local farmers behind the main Yangtze dyke in order to keep other water away from land which was then farmed.

Zhou Wenzhi, Vice-Minister for Water Resources, said: "The protective embankments inside the main Yangtze embankment need to be removed in times of major flood, because they occupy land through which the flood water should flow." In the event, the two both collapsed by themselves after serious leaks in their foundations. Thirteen bodies have so far been recovered in Jiayu, but officials did not say if other people were still missing.

As always, the summer floods are seized upon by the government as justification for building the Three Gorges Dam. "If we had the Three Gorges Dam, the levels in the lower reaches of the Yangtze would not be so high, and the situation would not be so urgent. So it is absolutely necessary to have this project," said Mr Zhao.

Opponents of the dam disagree, saying that the on-going construction of the dam has lulled flood officials into a false sense of security, and that restoration work on dykes and embankments has suffered as a result. The dam will not be fully operational for another decade at least.