Landslides Cause Fear Of Floods in Quake Zone

China continues recovery efforts after a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit central China on May 12, 2008, and rendered millions of people homeless.
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 23, 2008

BEIJING, May 22 -- Landslides caused by last week's earthquake in central China have backed up rivers into more than 30 new lakes, threatening to flood downstream communities if the mud gives way under building pressure, Chinese officials warned Thursday.

Officials also announced that the known death toll from the massive quake had increased to 55,239 people. More than 29,000 others are listed as missing and 288,431 are known to be injured.

Flooding poses a danger in a zone where nearly a million people live, including many who have fled towns and villages destroyed by the May 12 quake and taken up residence in mushrooming tent cities, according to Yun Xiaosu, vice minister of land and resources.

Aftershocks combined with the June rainy season in Sichuan province's mountains are likely to cause more landslides in coming weeks, Yun said. The warning was another indication that the 7.9-magnitude earthquake, which left 5 million people homeless, has created a variety of other problems that will confront China for months or years.

"This can all cause new catastrophes," Yun said. "We must go to every village, and we must go to all the sites of geological disturbances. This will take a long time."

The backed-up rivers have generated widespread fear -- and sometimes panic -- among farmers and townspeople traumatized by their experiences in the quake. A false alert Saturday evening sent hundreds of thousands fleeing in the darkness from the Beichuan area, fearing that a wall of water was about to course down the deep valley that cradles the hard-hit farm town and surrounding villages.

At a news conference in Beijing, Yun and other officials provided the first extensive assessment of the danger based on aerial surveys and scientific analysis. They said no large-scale flooding had taken place but the risk is great and likely to endure. As a result, most villages and refugee camps immediately below the backed-up waters, including some in the Beichuan area, have been evacuated, they said.

"It is fair to say these lakes pose a very great danger," said Liu Yuan, an engineer from the Environment Ministry.

In addition, some hydroelectric dams damaged by the quake could be in danger of bursting, according to officials and experts. More than 350 dams along the Min River and its tributaries were damaged, Sichuan officials estimate.

Most are small facilities built by local communities to provide electricity, but about 40 are medium-size, according to Liu Shukun of the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research in Beijing.

"It is unwise to build so many dams in the Min River earthquake belt," Liu said. "The small hydropower plants do not have careful planning."

Yun said the Land and Resources Ministry has commissioned five planes based at Chengdu, the provincial capital about 60 miles southeast of the epicenter, to photograph the disaster zone. As of Thursday, he said, experts analyzing the photos had identified 34 backed-up lakes.

Seven are in Beichuan county, one of the hardest-hit areas, he added. Dramatizing government concern, Premier Wen Jiabao took a helicopter to the region to inspect the largest lake threatening Beichuan, the New China News Agency reported.

The outcome of the survey will be a key factor in planning reconstruction and setting a timetable for people to return to their home areas, Yun said. "The earlier we complete our work, the better it will be for the displaced people," he said.

Wen said $10 billion has been set aside for rebuilding. But the government, absorbed in dealing with casualties and the swelling ranks of the homeless, has yet to draw up reconstruction plans.

The first priority, government officials said, is getting more tents to the Sichuan disaster zone to shelter the millions of people who lost their homes or are afraid to sleep inside because of aftershocks.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said 3.3 million tents are needed. "We hope for and welcome international assistance in this regard," he said at a ministry briefing.

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