Mighty Yangtze swollen by fresh rains

China eyes river warily as lake catches spillover

August 26, 2002|By Ching-Ching Ni | Ching-Ching Ni,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHANGSHA, China -- The flood crest came and went. So far, giant Dongting Lake has held steady against the mighty Yangtze, which crashed into it yesterday as the river hurtled on its annual path of destruction.

Yet no one dared to let his guard down as fresh rains began pounding still perilously swollen waterways today.

"This is no time to catch our breath," He Liang, an official at the anti-flood command center here in the capital of Hunan province, said yesterday. "Water levels remain above the danger zone. Landslides and dike leaks continue."

As he spoke, more than a million soldiers, peasants and rescue workers were toiling to fortify embankments and fill holes along the Dongting's 580-mile defensive shield. Water levels around China's second-largest freshwater lake have reached near-record highs this summer as flooding around the country has claimed nearly 1,000 lives.

The deluge around the lake began to subside slightly yesterday, suggesting that the region could be spared the calamity that befell the country in 1998, when more than 4,000 people died.

But depending on how much water Mother Nature dumps on the area in the next few days, the crisis may be far from over.

"A little rain is OK, but a lot of rain could make things even worse than 1998," He said.

And even if Hunan, the birthplace of Mao Tse-tung and current Premier Zhu Rongji, survives this year's scare, raging torrents will probably find new victims downstream.

Next stop for the Yangtze (also known as the Chang) is Hubei's provincial capital, Wuhan, an industrial city of 7 million. Authorities there declared a state of emergency over the weekend and braced for stormy weather expected in the next few days. Further out, traditionally vulnerable provinces such as Anhui and Jiangxi were also racing to defend themselves.

Unlike in Europe, where the recent floods represented more or less a once-in-a-century disaster, deluges are annual scourges in China.

Officials are quick to point out how much work they have done since the 1998 tragedy, which was caused by burst dikes and weak banks. They credit better management and infrastructure improvements with keeping people relatively safe this year.

But critics remind them that the chronic floods are also man-made. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Chinese government encouraged peasants to fill up parts of Dongting Lake and turn them into farms. The lake shrank by as much as one-third. Meanwhile, sediment buildup and soil erosion from over-logging elevated water levels in the lake and severely hampered its ability to act as a natural overflow basin for the tempestuous Yangtze, the world's third-largest river.

Trying to undo its mistakes, Beijing has begun ordering resettlement and a restoration of the original habitat around the lake. But these are costly and time-consuming ventures.

"Our problems are a legacy of history," said Sun Yijian, an environmental professor at Hunan University. "You can't expect a change overnight."

The state has also stepped up its efforts to build the biggest and most expensive hydroelectric project in the world. The Three Gorges Dam is billed as the ultimate solution to centuries of floods that have ripped through the cradle of Chinese civilization.

Critics say the dam's real mission is electricity generation, not flood control. And the reservoir's colossal scale and potential for sediment accumulation could make any break or spillover a catastrophe.

But Chinese officials are confident of success. When the Three Gorges project is finished, said Qiu Shunling, a Yangtze River researcher in Hubei, "we won't see another flood for at least a hundred years."

Ching-Ching Ni is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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