Seven million Chinese watch rising Yangtze lap at their suburbs

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TEAMS OF flood fighters were last night strengthening Wuhan's inner-city flood defences as the level of the Yangtze continued to creep higher.

Down on the city centre waterfront, trucks laden with sandbags were lined up along the most vulnerable part of the urban dyke, at Longwangmiao. Under a huge full moon, police patrols wandered by as labourers shovelled, carried and topped up the flood defences.

Walls of breeze blocks and sandbags now block what are normally gates on to the river.

"This is the most dangerous place," said a woman, with her two daughters. "Since we live just behind here, we are a little bit concerned and want to see what it happening. We've had floods before, but it has never been like this before."

On the old colonial customs house, red paint marks show the levels of the previous high river levels: 1931, 1996 and, at the top, 1954. By yesterday, the river was less than 40cm from the 1954 record, and this week it is due to climb further as a flood crest passes down the Yangtze, and another flows down the Han river, which merges with the mainstream at Wuhan.

At the weekend, officials decided to evacuate residents from three vulnerable outlying parts of Wuhan.

In a further attempt to safeguard the industrial city of seven million, officials 90 miles upstream ordered secondary dykes at Jianli town to be destroyed, allowing about 800 million cubic metres of flood water to inundate 180 sq km.

It was the second time in three days that Jianli's land had been purposefully flooded and some of the 50,000 local villagers "were reluctant to move", said the official Xinhua news agency. "It took local officials some time to persuade them," it added. Evacuees have been carrying whatever belongings they can manage and herding livestock out of the flood diversion areas, but have been forced to leave most of their things behind.

Flood officials are increasingly willing to sacrifice rural areas to reduce the flow in the Yangtze mainstream. It was estimated that the latest Jianli dyke break would lower the Yangtze by 10 to 25cm. That should help compensate for the latest flood crests. Fears about the impact of the surge brought the central government very close at the weekend to blowing a hole in the main Yangtze dyke upstream near Shashi city, after evacuating 330,000 people from the diversion area. In the end, water levels subsided slightly yesterday, postponing such a move.