Yangtse floods again, killing 2,000 villagers

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The Independent Online
It seems to be an inevitable annual tragedy: China's summer rains begin, the Yangtze river and its tributaries rise to levels "not seen for decades", the dikes are breached, and terrible floods lay claim to central and southern provinces, killing thousands and wiping out whole villages and their crops.

In 1994 the summer flood death toll reached more than 5,000, and in 1995 almost 4,000.

After the downpour started last month, water levels rose quickly in half a dozen provinces. Around 2,000 people have died, but the number will inevitably rise, with more rain forecast and waters draining away slowly in some of the worst hit regions, exacerbating problems with disease.

Torrential rains have dangerously swollen three of China's biggest rivers and officials have warned against epidemics in the wake of the floods.

The waters of the Yellow River, known as "China's sorrow" for its devastating floods throughout history, had risen to a historic high following several weeks of rain, an official said. Millions have lost their homes and grain stocks.

Along the Yangtze, soldiers and civilians have been manning dikes around the clock in the hope of preventing a greater catastrophe. Medical and sanitation teams have urgently been distributing chlorine to the millions of people whose water supplies are now contaminated by sewage and rotting animals.

However, the destruction in recent years has been nothing compared with the Yangtze flood calamities earlier this century. Official statistics give the death toll of the 1931, 1935 and 1954 floods as more than 300,000. Flood prevention has improved in recent years, but vulnerable regions still suffer.

In Guangxi's Rongshui prefecture, for instance, people struggle to rebuild dikes and irrigation systems from year to year, only to be hit by even worse flooding. It is a financially ruinous cycle. The total official economic cost of the 1995 floods was more than pounds 13bn.

Part of the problem is that dikes and embankments built in the 1950s, after repeated repairs simply cannot cope with bigger floods. This year, in Hubei alone, 300km of dikes have been destroyed.

Peking does not like to admit that a great deal more might be done. But, in an unprecedented step, the central government this year authorised provinces to approach international agencies themselves for help, an apparent admission that the situation was even more serious than usual. At the same time, however, the State Planning Minister, Chen Jinhua, has been talking reassuringly of a national "bumper harvest".

For most Chinese officials, the annual flood disasters are held up as the best argument in favour of building the controversial Three Gorges Dam.

But quite apart from the doubts raised by environmentalists, those millions who live in flood-prone regions could be forgiven for wondering whether more might not be done for them in the 15 years before the dam's scheduled completion.