/ 27 May 2008

Troops scramble to drain swelling China quake lake

Troops armed with dynamite scrambled on Tuesday to blast through a huge wall of debris that is damming a rising quake lake in south-west China and putting more than a million people at risk.

With the May 12 earthquake death toll already standing at more than 65 000, officials desperate to avoid another disaster sent 1 800 troops and engineers to try to reduce the dangerously high water levels in the lake.

But thunderstorms predicted on Tuesday to sweep across the mountainous region of Sichuan province threatened to make it a race against time.

The lake, now holding 130-million cubic metres of water, was created when the quake triggered a landslide that blocked the Jian river near the epicentre.

“We should work out the risk analysis reports as soon as possible because the rain upstream is raising the water level,” Chen Lei, the minister of water resources, was quoted as saying in the China Daily.

It said 1,3-million people living in adjacent areas would be at risk if the lake overflowed. As a precaution, 30 000 people had already been evacuated to higher ground.

Liu Ning, chief engineer at the Ministry of Water Resources overseeing the operation, said its water level on Monday was 725m — just 26m below the lowest part of the barrier.

He said it was right to get people out of danger. “It’s better for them to complain about the trouble that the evacuation would bring than to shed tears after the possible danger,” he told Shanghai-based Oriental TV.

Li Huzhang, an engineer with the armed police force, said at least 50 000 cubic metres of debris would have to be removed but that rescuers were aiming for 100 000 cubic metres to minimise the risk.

Engineers and soldiers took turns to work through the night, state news agency Xinhua reported. Because of a lack of tents, some soldiers had to sleep outdoors on the debris.

The lake is inaccessible by road and the teams of soldiers, engineers and police had to hike through remote and mountainous terrain.

Family planning policies

A PLA (People’s Liberation Army) officer told Xinhua the soldiers each had 10kg of dynamite and planned to carry out small blasts.

The site is one of about 35 “quake lakes” that could cause huge problems if they burst, authorities have said.

Since May 12, China has had to cope with thousands of quake aftershocks and myriad other dangers while trying to bring food, shelter and medical help to the millions left homeless across an area the size of South Korea.

More than 23 000 people are listed as missing, meaning the death toll from China’s worst quake in a generation could rise to 80 000.

The area was rocked by its biggest aftershock yet on Sunday, killing eight people, toppling thousands of damaged buildings and underlining the lingering risks from the quake, which measured 7,9 on the Richter scale.

The government said last week that just over 5,4-million people lost their homes. Many now live in tents or hastily erected units in temporary camps, but an untold number are still living without any shelter at all.

Authorities have, however, relaxed China’s strict family planning policies for bereaved families, state press reported.

New guidelines allow couples who lost their only child to have a second as long as they get official permission, the Chengdu Evening News said.

China’s one-child policy generally permits families living in urban areas one birth and rural families two if the first is a girl.

The quake struck in the middle of the day when schools were full, sending entire floors crashing down on each other and burying children before they had a chance to escape.

Many parents are now demanding answers as to why so many schools collapsed so easily, amid allegations of lax government oversight that permitted shoddy construction work. — AFP