China's flood figures omit deaths

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The Independent Online
IN CHINA there is a statistic for just about anything.

Flood officials wheeled out yesterday by the government to update the world on this year's watery disaster announced that 130,000 "leading officials" in Hubei province were protecting the Yangtze dykes; 276,000 soldiers had helped resolve 5,762 "dangerous situations" in flood areas; and 22,728 medical teams had been dispatched into the disaster regions.

But how many people had actually died so far in the worst floods since 1954, and what was the estimated economic cost of the flooding?

"We are in the process of verification," said Zhou Wenzhi, vice-minister for water conservancy. China did not yet have a reliable figure for total deaths but "after this verification process we will truthfully release this figure to the world", said Mr Zhou.

Zhao Qizheng, a government spokesman, lashed out at "outrageous and absurd" estimates in the foreign media of the death toll, and jumped in to stop anyone drawing the wrong conclusion from this reticence. The updated toll would "by no means" double the 3 August figure of 2,100 killed, he said.

For weeks China's domestic media have managed to give blanket coverage of the floods without mentioning how many people are dying.

But Mr Zhou criticised foreign media reports, especially concerning the dyke collapse in Jiayu county, Hubei province, on 1 August. He lambasted one report of 3,000 casualties as "groundless".

After "repeated investigations and verifications" the number of Jiayu dead was 44, he said. No one had been killed or injured in the major Yangtze dyke breach at Jiujiang city in early August, he insisted.

As for direct economic losses, due to efforts being put into fighting the floods, Mr Zhou said the government "does not have enough time" to make the difficult analysis. That would come in the future.

Senior officials from the two provinces worst hit by flooding were less bashful. North-east Heilongjiang estimated losses due to the flood at 20 billion yuan (pounds 1.54bn), and central Hubei gave a figure of 38.4 billion yuan (pounds 12.8bn). One quarter of Heilongjiang's grain harvest had been wiped out, said the deputy governor, Ma Shujie.

The sensitivity of such figures means that the total human and economic cost of this year's floods will not be clear for some time. There are also several weeks left for the toll to increase, with Mr Zhou saying that a late typhoon season could extend the flood season to December.