/ 26 May 2008

Swelling China lakes a danger after quake

China was preparing to dynamite rock, mud and rubble forming a dangerously large ”quake lake” on Monday, hoping to avert a new disaster two weeks after a catastrophic tremor struck Sichuan province.

The official estimate of dead from the May 12 earthquake is now more than 60 000, but that number is certain to grow as searchers account for more of the 30 000 missing.

Premier Wen Jiabao believes the toll could exceed 80 000.

The frenzied initial rescue response is cooling into a long battle with nature, deprivation and latent discontent sure to last long after thousands of aftershocks.

Chinese soldiers carrying 10kg of dynamite each arrived on Monday at the Tangjiashan lake, one of dozens formed by the earthquake, to try to blast away rubble, Xinhua news agency said, as heavy rain and high winds were forecast.

The lake’s barrier was in danger of bursting after the water rose by nearly two metres on Saturday to 723m, only 29m below the lowest part of the barrier.

”The lake is now holding more than 128-million cubic metres of water and may cause a devastating flood if the barrier bursts,” Xinhua said.

Mianyang, a city near the worst-hit areas, had returned to a kind of normality, with shops open and traders and pedestrians filling streets. But much remained to remind China that absorbing the damage of the quake will take many years.

‘Missing’ posters

The city sports stadium was thronged by thousands of the estimated five million people displaced by the quake. City roads were busy with troops and supply trucks that will have to support towns and villages for a long time yet.

And the hundreds of ”missing” posters plastered on boards at the stadium and on lampposts echo the grief — and anger over many children killed when their schools crumpled, often even as other buildings nearby stood.

”We don’t know how long we’ll be here. It already seems like years and years,” said Zhu Huajun, a displaced farmer whose 14-year-old daughter lost both legs when her school collapsed.

”As well as all the dead, so many people have also been disabled. If it’s a kid how can you be sure that she’ll be taken care of properly in a few years, when people forget the quake?”

In a small town outside the city of Mianzhu, families were sheltering beside the remains of a Buddhist temple.

”Our homes were all flattened,” said Nan Guizhi (76). ”We needed somewhere to stay and it might as well be this temple so we can guard it.”

Other residents said their biggest worry was how they would endure the rainy months in tents.

On the outskirts of Mianzhu, thousands of misplaced people remained in a huge encampment sweltering in government-issued tents. Doctors working under a massive awning said heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses would be a growing worry as the humid summer gets into full swing.

Aftershocks continue to rattle nervous residents, with many sleeping outdoors even when their homes are unscathed. A strong aftershock on Sunday killed at least six people, injured nearly 1 000 and toppled more than 70 000 houses.

As the rainy season arrives, officials also worry about build-ups of water forming dozens of lakes. Thousands living below the lake Tangjiashan have been evacuated as a precaution.

The government has asked the international community to provide more relief aid, saying more than three million tents are needed and just 400 000 have so far reached the disaster zone.

”Living like this is much more tiring than you’d think,” said tent-dwelling farmer Jiang Shuncheng, whose wife, father, a son and daughter-in-law all died in the quake.

”But I’d still be too scared to live under a roof.” – Reuters 2008