Draining of 'Quake Lake' Begins

China Tries to Ease Threat to Hundreds of Thousands of People

An evacuee from Qinglian looks out from high ground. The lake threatening the area was formed by a landslide.
An evacuee from Qinglian looks out from high ground. The lake threatening the area was formed by a landslide. (By Ng Han Guan -- Associated Press)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 7, 2008; Page A11

MIANYANG, China, June 7 -- Access was so difficult that heavy equipment had to be airlifted by helicopter. The Chinese premier flew overhead to emphasize the urgency of the work, while more than 620 soldiers labored round-the-clock to dig a sluice to drain a large lake formed by last month's earthquake, in a carefully planned effort to prevent massive flooding.

On Saturday morning, the week-long struggle finally paid off when Tangjiashan "quake lake" began to drain.

The so-called lake was formed when a landslide poured mud and rocks into a major river in Sichuan province, creating a natural dam. Thanks to rain and the natural flow of the river, the level of the lake finally rose to the height of the channel and began to stream through it at 7:15 a.m. Saturday, state media reported.

At the same time, soldiers on Saturday began to deepen the channel and dig another branch of the earthen spillway to release more water and reduce pressure on the dam, state-run CCTV said. Television footage showed workers alongside what looked like a gradually growing stream.

More than 250,000 people in low-lying towns and neighborhoods nearby have been evacuated as officials try to manage the controlled release of 300 million cubic yards of water pooling behind the dam. Hundreds of thousands more people may still have to be evacuated if the water begins rushing too quickly -- a total of 1.3 million people if the entire dam completely bursts.

The water was released in a "rapid, steady" flow Saturday, according to the official New China News Agency, which had a reporter at a command center near the dam who said the water flow was "gradually increasing in volume."

Liu Ning, general engineer of China's Ministry of Water Resources, said in an interview on CCTV that the biggest problem officials face is clearing away boulders in the channel. While no dynamite has so far been used, soldiers might use "small-scale explosions" to make those boulders smaller, Liu said.

"It will take time for the recent rain to gather in the lake. When it does, the flow should be bigger and more earth will crumble, Liu said.

The operation has the potential to showcase the engineering skills of the Chinese government, but it also could lead to disaster, not unlike one that occurred during a dam burst in Tibet in 2000, which led to fatal flooding in India, experts said.

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, flew over the lake by helicopter Thursday, telling the New China News Agency afterward that "now is a critical moment."

Even in the relatively elevated sections of this city, hundreds of shops were closed. Before the release, evacuated residents living in tent cities had started to wonder whether and when they could risk returning home. Police patrolled deserted villages and neighborhoods to make sure they didn't.

"People have the impression that the danger has already abated. But the truth is, no one can predict what will happen later. People who don't understand the situation think this proves that man can conquer nature," Fan Xiao, an engineer with the Sichuan geological bureau, said before the release. "On the contrary, it is a long way to go to win the battle."

As the water surges through the man-made opening in the mud-and-rock dam, the channel will eventually crumble. "It is unavoidable that the dam will burst finally," Fan said. "The question is, how much?"

Residents who had evacuated to areas above Mianyang had begun to sound impatient Friday.

"Right now, we can't take a shower. All we can do is use a towel and a basin to wash. If we want to cook, we need to gather firewood," said Wang Min, 43, a shopkeeper in nearby Qinglian town. "I've already moved my goods to the second floor of my shop. I've been here for more than two weeks and I really don't want to stay here any longer."

Liu Zhihui, 39, a tailor from Qinglian, complained of the heat. "Some people say we need to stay here for another month, others say two months. If we really are here that long, I'm sure people will become steamed buns in their tents."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company