2010/07/21

China flood toll tops 700 with conditions set to worsen

BEIJING, July 21, 2010 (AFP) - Flooding in China that has killed more than 700 people this year and inundated countless communities looks set to worsen as the country gets deeper into typhoon season, the government warned Wednesday.

But officials, in the first high-level press briefing on weeks of deadly flooding plaguing much of the country's southern half, said a disaster on the scale of historic 1998 flooding on the Yangtze River would likely be averted.

A total of 701 people have died so far this year in flooding that has also left 347 people missing, Liu Ning, head of the country's flood control authority and vice minister of water resources, told reporters.

He said the annual rainy season would continue at least through August, and that more downpours were expected, further straining reservoirs and other water control projects, especially as the East Asian typhoon season has just begun.

"During this period there will be heavy rainfall and serious floods. The rainfall will continue," Liu said.

He said meteorologists expected heavy rains could spread to northern China, possibly causing flooding along major rivers such as the Huai, Yellow and Songhua.

"In these rivers they haven't seen major floods in many years and they are very likely to see some soon. So we must anticipate big disasters," he said.

Liu said more than 230 rivers in the country had seen water levels rise past warning points, with two dozen exceeding historic highs.

Liu did not say how many of the 701 deaths came since June, when the current bout of extreme rains began, but he said 187 of the deaths -- and 173 of those left missing -- occurred in just the past two weeks.

Tens of thousands of homes and other structures have been destroyed in floods and landslides, and economic losses have hit at least 142 billion yuan (21 billion dollars), with 110 million people affected, he said.

The floods have dominated the country's attention for weeks, with state television each day broadcasting dramatic images of villagers being rescued from raging rivers or plucked from rooftops in inundated villages.

The situation has triggered fears China could see a repeat of the disastrous flooding of 1998, when heavy rain swelled the Yangtze, China's longest river, and many tributaries, leading to a series of devastating levee collapses.

At least 4,150 people were believed killed, 18 million were evacuated and millions of homes were destroyed in the floods, the country's worst in recent memory.

However, Liu and other officials stressed that lessons learned from 1998, and the 2006 completion of the Three Gorges Dam -- which was built partly for flood control -- would prevent such a recurrence.

He said rainfall levels, although extremely high, have remained 20 percent lower than those of 1998.

And although the upper reaches of the Yangtze drainage basin have seen the highest flood peak since 1987, Liu said the dam would prevent flood surges on the river's upper and lower reaches from "converging" as they did in 1998.

He said the government was now feverishly coordinating the release of water by dams throughout the region to maintain a smooth flow.

"The Three Gorges Dam is now playing an effective role in flood control," Liu said, adding that numerous dams and other flood control facilities were built in the wake of the 1998 disaster on the Yangtze.

"All these efforts have laid a good foundation and act as a pillar in our flood control campaign," he said.

However, Liu also acknowledged that six small dams had collapsed this year and more than 1,000 displayed potential "risks".