500,000 evacuated from floods in China Worst Chang flooding since 1954 devastates central Hubei province

August 08, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

HONG KONG -- In a desperate attempt to contain the worst flooding of the Chang (Yangtze) River since 1954, Chinese authorities evacuated more than half a million people in central Hubei province while preparing yesterday to blast dikes to dissipate raging waters.

Flooding from torrential rainfall of up to seven times normal levels in central and eastern China this summer has claimed more than 2,000 lives since June, according to official figures, but some nongovernmental groups estimate higher casualties.

Despite a series of dikes along the Chang, the overflow of the world's third-longest river has affected 28 provinces and cities and 240 million people -- one in five Chinese citizens.

14 million homeless

About 14 million people have been left homeless by landslides, mudslides and toppled buildings, and an estimated 65 million acres of crops -- or one-sixth of China's farmland -- have been damaged or destroyed, according to Fan Bojun, vice minister of civil affairs.

Flooding is an annual occurrence in China that has taken millions lives over the centuries, especially along the river dubbed "China's sorrow," because of its flooding.

A disaster relief worker with years of experience with war and famine in Somalia and Rwanda who was reached by telephone yesterday in Yunnan province said she was shocked by the extent of devastation.

Thousands of people are living in tents atop narrow dikes in scorching daytime heat, some for as long as 50 days without access to safe drinking water or sewage facilities, said an official of Doctors Without Borders in China who toured the flooding in Hunan province Wednesday.

Hospital buildings lost

Cases of dysentery, respiratory infections and eye disease are rising. In Zaotong, Yunnan province, two hospital buildings have been swept away, leaving no facilities for dressing, sterilization or laundry, she said.

The problem is there's nowhere for them to go. Meanwhile, people are contaminating the river and ground water with feces, and floods have washed away the harvest for the coming months.

China's longest flood season on record has already caused $5 billion in damage and is expected to shave between half a percent and 1 percent off China's gross domestic product this year, government officials said. The Chang supports 40 percent of the nation's agricultural and industrial output and is home to one-third of its people.

On Thursday, water levels in the Jingjiang section of the Chang, the most treacherous and winding section of the river, surpassed levels recorded in 1954, when flooding killed 30,000. Far fewer people have perished in the current disaster because of stronger dikes, improved transportation, rescue facilities and early-warning systems.

Relief groups are distributing food, medicine, prescription drugs, LTC water purification tablets, and chlorine to combat unsanitary conditions.

Pub Date: 8/08/98

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