State of emergency in China as flood threatens millions

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China declared a state of emergency in its central Hunan province yesterday as a lake the size of Luxembourg threatened to overflow and engulf millions of people.

China declared a state of emergency in its central Hunan province yesterday as a lake the size of Luxembourg threatened to overflow and engulf millions of people.

More than 7,000 soldiers were mobilised to reinforce dykes and evacuatemore than 250,000 people from the most threatened areas. Rivers swollen by a tropical storm have surged into Dongting lake, which covers 1,560 square miles, raising the water to its highest level in three years.

The lake acts as a massive overflow for the mighty Yangtze river and could affect up to 10 million people if it is breached. At risk are the scores of farming villages that lie below the water level in the rainy season, protected by 580 miles of dykes. The Dongting, China's second-largest freshwater lake, also borders the city of Yueyang, home to 600,000 people.

As many as 400,000 local workers have been drafted under emergency local government powers to help soldiers pile sandbags on top of dykes and brick up holes in embankments, some of which have already overflowed. The dykes are the last line of defence for 667,000 hectares of fertile farmland.

Although the rains subsided yesterday, the four swollen rivers that feed the lake were pushing its waters higher, officials said. The Xianjiang river – which rose four metres (13ft) above a safe level for the first time in history – was the biggest threat, state media said.

The lake rose yesterday to more than 34 metres, short of its historical 1998 high of 35.9 metres, but well over the 32 metres flood-warning threshold.

More than 200 people have died in the landslides and floodwaters that have struck Hunan during this rainy season. In the province's mountainous south, flooding and landslides had killed at least 99 people, a Red Cross official said.

About 6,000 people are homeless in Hunan's Chenzhou county, and a landslide there killed 21 people only an hour after the authorities cleared many others from the area.

Rains in Chenzhou and the neighbouring county of Leiyang washed away tobacco crops, threatening to leave farmers destitute, the official said.

Nationwide, almost 1,000 people have died in the worst floods in China since 1998, when 4,000 people were killed.

Before striking Hunan, the typhoon Wongfong left a trail of destruction across the southern Guangdong province, the state-run China Daily reported.

In the coastal city of Leizhou, two coastal dykes were destroyed and large areas of farmland were flooded. Locals rebuilt the dykes with 4,000 sandbags. In Maoming, at least 92 houses were destroyed. Up to 2,000 passengers were stranded at the railway station in Guangzhou after a landslide in Jiangxi province destroyed a stretch of railway. The typhoon – the 14th in China this year – then moved east to Guangxi where it killed eight people.

China's south and southwest have borne the brunt of the rain in the past fortnight. Last week, a landslide in Yunnan province swamped 10 villages during the night and buried alive more than 60 people, 23 of whom are still missing.

This year's summer typhoons have surpassed their usual reach, hitting the deserts of north-western Xinjiang and the mountains of Zhejiang.

* A landslide triggered by heavy monsoon rains swept through a mountain village in eastern Nepal, killing up to 65 people and pushing the death toll from floods in south Asia to more than 1,000. Most of the residents of Thapra in Ramechap district were asleep when the landslide struck in the early hours yesterday.