/ 19 June 2008

In China’s flood zone, life moves at different tempo

When the people of Fengkai were warned that the rivers in their south China town were going to overflow, they knew what to do.

Ground-floor residents and shop owners enlisted friends and relatives to help them haul upstairs everything of value — televisions, furniture, computers, even motorcycles.

People on high floors of apartment buildings, most of which are six or seven storeys here, cleared spaces for neighbours from below and welcomed them in.

Shop owners pulled shutters down. Ladders were lashed to second-storey balconies and windows. The authorities cut electricity. Schools were closed.

Then they waited.

”The water came quickly this year,” said Zhang Shang, sitting at the stern of a shallow wooden boat paddling through streets that were turned into mocha-coloured canals.

”It only took one night to rise.”

Floods hit this part of the country on a regular basis — once every two or three years, resident say — and every time the water rises life goes on, albeit at a slightly different tempo. On Wednesday, after the water had receded about a metre, it was still 3m deep in parts of town.

The rain and floods, concentrated in Guangdong, where Fengkai is, and neighbouring Guangxi, have killed at least 171 people and left 52 missing since the start of the annual flood season and forecasters have warned of more downpours in coming days.

More than 1,6-million people have been evacuated across nine provinces and regions in southern China since major flooding started 12 days ago, state media have reported.

In some areas, rain-triggered floods toppled houses and damaged wide tracts of cropland, state media reported.

Slow boat to market
In Fengkai, swollen rivers inundated a large area of town, but there were no reports of deaths and all the buildings in the inundated part were intact — indeed, inhabited.

The Central Market was submerged, so the government ordered vendors to the sidewalk on both sides of the town’s main road.

Huang Lifen, selling peaches and lychees at a temporary stall covered by a red, white and blue tarp, said the flooding has added nuisance to her already long days.

Huang said she tried to get to market by 6am., but the only way out of the flooded area where she lives on the second storey of an apartment building is to hail a passing boat from her window like the one Zhang was paddling.

”It’s three yuan [43 US cents] to get out, and three yuan to get back, and if I go back late at night it’s 10 yuan,” she said.

Despite an armada of small boats making a killing plying the streets, Huang said it was hard to get one in the morning.

”I have had to wait an hour in the past.”

At night, Huang heads home when customers thin, usually around 9pm or 10pm.

”There’s not much to do since there’s no electricity,” she said, picking stems off lychees. ”Plus, it’s late. I’ll cook dinner, do laundry or things like that, then go to sleep.”

Huang’s brother sold potatoes, peppers, garlic and other vegetables at the stall next to hers. Beyond that, other vendors hawked live fish and butchered live chickens and ducks by the side of the road. One man herded two pigs down the street, which was crowded with cars and shoppers.

During a respite from the rain, Long Zhe, a fifth grader wearing an LA Lakers jersey, trotted up to a passing foreigner to try out his English.

He and a friend had been sent to buy vegetables. For the past three days since classes were cancelled, he has been cooped up at home doing homework or watching TV.

Long says his parents do not let him out most of the time, and his teachers had also forbidden it.

”It’s so boring,” he said. — Reuters