Chinese troops battle rain to drain quake lake

Chinese troops racing to drain an ”earthquake lake” ahead of more forecast rain made substantial progress digging a diversion channel and have created emergency escape paths in case a mud and rock dam gives way.

The landslide-blocked river at Tangjiashan in south-west China’s mountainous Sichuan province is now the most pressing danger after an earthquake devastated the region on May 12.

Hundreds of troops have removed more than a third of the earth for a channel intended to ease pressure from the rising waters, an official spokesperson said on Friday.

”The work on the blocked lake is going smoothly and at this pace it should be completed soon,” said Zhou Hua, an official from nearby Mianyang city involved in the drainage effort.

Zhou declined to say when the operation was likely to finish. But up to 190 000 residents downstream had moved to higher ground — usually hillsides close to where they were living before — to avoid a surge of water if the blockage suddenly gaves way.

”At this stage, the situation is under control, but we’ve set in place this contingency plan to minimise any possible damage.”

Xinhua news agency said the water level was nearly 23m below the lowest point of the barrier, which experts have said could give way quickly once breached. Troops have also built escape paths in the event that happens, Xinhua said.

The death toll from the quake is more than 68 500 and is sure to rise with 20,000 missing. Aftershocks have toppled 420 000 houses, most already uninhabitable.

A Chinese official has withdrawn from the Beijing Olympic torch rally in atonement for the poor construction that caused so many schools to collapse.

Lin Qiang, vice inspector of the Sichuan provincial educational department, is the first official to publicly acknowledge that corruption might have contributed to the collapses, which buried thousands of children in a minute.

Domestic media reports compiled by Reuters put the combined toll from deaths of children and teachers in the rubble of schools at more than 9 000.

The reconstruction work has only just begun and thousands of survivors are now threatened by more than 30 quake lakes, formed by landslides, that could break through the natural dams, flooding downstream towns and reservoirs.

But rain has hampered the efforts by more than 600 soldiers to open a giant sluice to discharge the floodwaters. Helicopters shipping in equipment were unable to take off and 1 000 soldiers had to carry in 10 tonnes of diesel by foot to fuel bulldozers.

A massive relief effort to provide food, tents and clothing for millions and rebuild houses and infrastructure is expected to take up to three years. Preliminary estimates show the quake caused 6,72-billion yuan ($960-million) in damage to communications.

Japan meanwhile has shelved plans for its military to fly tents and blankets to China, a Japanese government official said on Friday.

”As there were concerns in China, Japan and China had discussions and decided to shelve the idea of Self-Defence Forces planes providing transport,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told a news conference.

Japanese newspapers cited Beijing’s concern after public criticism of the plan, including messages on Chinese internet sites linking Tokyo’s military with its wartime occupation troops.

Donations from home and abroad had reached 37,3-billion yuan ($5,38-billion) by Thursday. China has also enacted a special statute to punish those found misusing relief goods and donations and Beijing has sent 300 auditors to the area. – Reuters 2008

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