Yangtze death toll on rise

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CHINA'S longest river, the Yangtze, was its deepest as well yesterday as the flood-swollen waterway continued to rise above a danger level seen only once before in 46 years of Communist rule. Should the river burst its banks, the death toll is likely to rise to well above the 1,200 fatalities already reported.

The Vice Premier, Jiang Chunyun, visited Jiangxi province and spoke with local people who had fled waters that rose to the eaves of one-storey buildings. Television film showed him assuring one elderly man that the Communist Party would not allow anyone to starve as a result of the flooding, which has wiped out an estimated 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of crops in the country's prime rice-growing regions.

The Civil Affairs Ministry said on Friday that more than 1.3 million people had been displaced by the flooding, most of them in Hunan province. An estimated 900,000 houses have been destroyed in the 10 southern provinces affected, and the total economic loss has been estimated so far at 36.6 billion yuan (pounds 2.9bn). No updated figures were available yesterday.

In addition to Hunan and Jiangxi provinces, the others affected were Hubei, Anhui, Fujian, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Guangxi, Sichuan and Guizhou. Soldiers and civilian volunteers have been shoring up dikes, evacuating people and helping to set up shantytown refuges, where disease looms as a new threat.

At Wuhan, where the river was at its highest level since records began in 1865, flood control officials warned the city's seven million residents to prepare for the worst if the Yangtze rises another three feet. Typhoons and summer rainstorms hit China every year, causing widespread flooding. This year the rains have been unusually heavy in the south. Scientists also attribute the problem to melting snow, that further raises the levels of rivers and lakes along the Yangtze, deforestation and soil erosion.