Chinese citizens monitor swollen lake

Residents, officials hoping to avert collapse of dikes in Hunan province


XIANGYIN, China - After a worrisome increase in small leaks, citizen patrols have been stepped up along hundreds of miles of dikes that hem in a huge, swollen lake here in central China.

Still, the mood around Dongting Lake remained calm yesterday, with officials and local residents expressing confidence that the network of protective dikes would hold through a peak in waters that has been predicted for today.

"It doesn't seem so dangerous now," said Wang Renwei, 35, a rice farmer whose home and farm are vulnerable.

There were no reports yesterday of serious threats to those dikes or to the hundreds of thousands of residents who have remained in adjacent lowlands. Overall, it appears, Hunan province and neighboring areas have battled this intense flood with remarkably few casualties.

Officials said the weather upstream this week would determine whether the flooding threat abated and the need for vigilance along the dikes was prolonged.

The water level in the vast, multifingered lake, fed by the Yangtze River and four tributaries, was creeping upward yesterday and was expected to rise 4 more inches before peaking today at about 115 feet. That is several feet above the danger point, at which rising water pressure can undermine dikes.

But it is 3 feet below the level reached in 1998, when flooding along much of the Yangtze killed more than 4,000 people. That prompted major construction programs to raise and strengthen the region's protective walls. This summer, more than 900 people across China have been killed by floods and landslides, but few if any deaths were reported last week during the menacing surge of Dongting Lake.

Strains have begun to show, though, on the dikes, which are large earthen and concrete mounds, often with roads along the top. The first sign of trouble is usually a gush of water, resembling a natural spring, that might appear hundreds of feet from the dike walls. These "gushers" result from seepage underneath the dike, and if left untended for more than a few hours they can lead to disaster.

"The dikes have remained fairly stable, but we had a number of new gushers today because of the continued high pressure," said a water bureau official for Yongji county, covering a large southern part of the lake, who would give only his surname, Xia. "Altogether, we've had 27 gushers during this flood season," he said, referring to his county alone, "but 20 of those have occurred in the last two days."

Though it is impractical to pinpoint the lakeside source of such seepages, they are easily countered with a technique used worldwide: Sandbags are stacked in a circle around the gushing water, creating a pool that is filled in with sand and gravel. Water pressure in the makeshift tank equalizes that pushing in from the far side of the dike, halting the spread of the leak.

Searching for gushers is the task of villagers who have been pressed into service here. They were prominent around the lake yesterday, walking in lines along the dikes and poking at the earth with poles. Most wore big straw hats on this hot, sunny day when the lake region was eerily quiet, giving no obvious sign of the subterranean battle of earth and water.

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