Untamed Waterways Kill Thousands Yearly
By Michael Laris
A photograph, snapped last week by a Chinese journalist who infiltrated the military cordon surrounding a region of the country that has been hit hard by floods, told a similar tale. In it, an anguished mother lifts a reed mat covering her daughter, who had drowned beneath the family's collapsed home, to see her face one more time.
Floods are China's recurring nightmare. Decades of economic development have brought the nation many of the trappings of modernity, from laptop computers to skyscrapers, but floods still kill thousands and humble millions nearly every year.
The Yellow River has flooded so often that it is known as China's sorrow. While the wrath of heaven is blamed for the floods, all the destruction has not been caused by nature. Decades ago, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek diverted the course of the Yellow River, killing 200,000 people in a futile attempt to stop a Japanese army offensive. Officials now use the deadly history of the Yangtze, China's longest river, to justify the country's riskiest and most controversial infrastructure project -- the enormous Three Gorges Dam.
The changes in the way China has faced the floods over the last half century show much about how its society has changed and also illustrate its troubled relationship with its environment.
China has made progress protecting its people from the ravages of its rivers. Major dikes have been lengthened and improved. In 1931, 140,000 people drowned when Yangtze dikes gave way under the pressure of lower volumes of water than have flowed this year.
When massive floods hit China in 1954, just five years after the founding of the People's Republic, the country was poor and unprepared. Many officials were unpracticed in mobilizing flood control efforts. The army was inexperienced and left weakened by the Korean War.
"Right after liberation, government efficiency and communications were all terrible," a senior flood-relief official said. "At the time, there were very few phones, let alone satellites or weather forecasts. You'd have to ride a horse or run [to warn others of coming floods], but if you ran, the water could beat you."
But today, even with cell phones and helicopters, flood deaths -- although on a different scale -- are still so common in China that officials can seem almost blase when they recite the figures. "More than 2,000 have died in the floods since the flood season started," said Fan Baojun, vice minister of the Civil Affairs Ministry, which is in charge of flood relief. "It's average. That is fewer than in 1991 and more than in 1994 and 1996."
It is becoming more difficult to protect the Chinese people from floods. Since 1954, the population has more than doubled, from 582 million to 1.2 billion, with most of it concentrated around river beds. Farmers with no other place to till crops have turned flood plains near major waterways into farmland, inhabiting flood channels, man-made flood diversion zones and natural run-off areas.
Land reclamation by farmers, along with accumulated silt deposits, have shrunk Hunan province's Dongting Lake from an area of 2,316 square miles in 1825, to 1,042 today, according to Wang Shengfu, a senior engineer of the Yangtze River Water Conservation Committee. In the 1950s, there were 1,332 lakes in Hubei province; by the 1980s, there were 843, the New China News Agency quoted Wang as saying. Local embankments built by farmers inside the dikes are also hemming in -- and thus raising -- the Yangtze's level.
Those individual decisions -- most in contravention of China's Flood Control Law -- are affecting the entire Yangtze region. This year, river crests have actually been higher than in 1954, even though the volume of water rushing down the Yangtze was greater then.
Although China's vast networks of soil dikes have been fortified, they are still primitive. Local governments have organized millions of people to patrol them around the clock. When water seeps under the dikes and bubbles up from the ground just beyond them, workers rush to cover the wet areas with sand and gravel to prevent a breakthrough. Flood-control officials say that even low-tech pests, such as ants, can cause major damage.
"In foreign countries, people don't understand why we have a million people on the dikes," said Zhao Minzheng, an engineer who heads the Hubei provincial flood-control headquarters. "If we could, we would put reinforced concrete" underneath the dikes, he said, but China lacks the resources.
The ground beneath a vital section of the Yangtze River dike near Jiujiang city gave way last week, opening a 120-foot breach and causing concern that other waterlogged flood banks could also collapse. Panicked local residents tried to plug the hole with a large truck and a small ship, but both washed right through. It took an army unit four days to plug the gap.
In China, floods have a meaning much beyond local dislocation. The Chinese have traditionally believed that floods mark the end of a dynasty; at a minimum, they are considered a litmus test for leaders. President Jiang Zemin's name can be taken to mean "the river soaks the people" -- a bad omen, people say.
The Chinese government has censored much of the flood reporting. Soldiers kept all but a few journalists who work for the key central government organs -- the People's Daily, New China News Agency, and China Central Television -- away from the areas with the highest loss of life. But several aggressive Chinese journalists made their way to these scenes on boats with other authorities. Their images, such as that of the mother with her dead child, have not been published here.
Statistics, too, are suspect. The government reports that at least 2,000 people have died in floods this year, but even the number killed by floods decades ago is still unclear. For example, by China's official figures, 30,000 people died in the 1954 floods. But Zhao, head of the Hubei flood headquarters, said the actual figure was "more than 200,000" if those who died because of accidents, starvation and disease in the aftermath of the floods are included.
Some American and Chinese water experts have argued that China could have done more to mitigate this year's floods. "China is building gigantic projects, such as the Three Gorges and Xiaolangdi dams, while neglecting their existing flood management system," said Philip Williams, president of the International Rivers Network.
Dai Qing, a prominent dissident and critic of the Three Gorges Dam project, said that mankind's faulty management of its natural surroundings is to blame. Clear-cutting of timber along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, which causes soil erosion, is one of the factors that has dangerously altered the environment, she said.
A recent article in China Economic Times took China to task for blindly following communist slogans such as "Conquer nature!" "What a shame on this nation that used to believe in the unity of nature and man," it said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company