Yangtze sweeps away soldiers battling floods

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The Independent Online
AN UNKNOWN number of soldiers are reported to have been on a water-logged dyke which suddenly collapsed in Hubei province, the worst breach in the flood defences so far reported in China's flood crisis.

Conflicting details of what happened in Jiayu county on Saturday emerged yesterday, with one unconfirmed Chinese newspaper report saying that 400 soldiers were swept awaywhen the dyke gave way, trapping 50,000 local residents. No death toll was given, but a Hong Kong human rights group said that nine bodies had been retrieved.

The devastation caused by record water levels on the Yangtze - the highest in 44 years - shows no sign of abating. Two days of rains in the higher reaches have created another flood crest which is moving downstream, and typhoon Otto is approaching China's eastern shores. The official Xinhua news agency said the Yangtze was threatening to burst its embankments in 3,200 places, and 1,800 of these possible breaches were "major".

Accurate information on specific situations is hard to come by. The Yangcheng Evening News report about Jiayu, a rural area about 40 miles from Wuhan city, received no mention on the main state television news last night, which instead devoted several reports to showing how Communist Party members, the police, the army and the air force were battling against the floods.

It has also been some days since the Chinese government updated the flood- death figures. Most foreign journalists have been refused permission to travel to the region, and last week an ABC television crew from the United States was detained in the city of Wuhan for trying to report on the flood situation.

The situation in Jiayu county may be clarified in the next few days. In Hong Kong, the Information Centre of Human Rights and Democratic Movement in China said 150 soldiers and an unknown number of villagers were swept away and large numbers of people were still missing.

It was not until yesterday that the China Daily reported that a section of the dyke at Dongting Lake, Hunan province, had broken nine days earlier, flooding the homes of more than 100,000 villagers in Anxiang. "They are stranded on the dyke without adequate food and drinking water, and can do nothing but pray," said the newspaper. It added that medical stations have been set up in the battle to stop epidemics breaking out.

Representatives from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have visited the Dongting area and estimated that up to 300,000 people were living in plastic and bamboo tents on the dykes. "Where people have been for a long time there was a lot of despair and resignation," said Arne Jacobson. Some farmers have been camped out for six weeks.

So far the major dykes along the Yangtze have been holding, but secondary levees are starting to prove vulnerable. Anti-flood officials are having to make difficult decisions to abandon certain smaller dykes, allowing them to breach in order to take the pressure off industrial centres. The Hubei authorities, for instance, gave up on 11 small dykes to divert floodwaters to protect Wuhan city. The resulting flood damage was estimated at pounds 30m.

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