In a series of deadly opening blows in China's yearly battle with floods, 240 people have been killed and 60 million others are in danger following torrential rain in the Yangtze River valley, Chinese disaster relief officials said today.

So far, 1.84 million people have been evacuated from eastern and central China's flood plains, according to a statement released today by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and carried by the official New China News Agency.

Heavy rain began falling on June 15, marking the beginning of the summer flood season. Last year, 3,656 people were killed in the worst floods to ravage China since 1954. But despite a year of preparations, and exhortations that China should change its approach to dealing with the environment, the old, deadly pattern appears to be holding.

China's population has doubled since the 1950s, and farmers have staked claims to land that historically served as a flood plain. Decades of logging in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, China's longest river, has resulted in a massive buildup of silt downstream. Many areas the government has set aside for flood control also have been reclaimed by local residents desperate to find farmland.

The ministry said that hundreds of thousands of farmers have lost their homes, 1.6 million acres of crops have been destroyed and millions more have been damaged since late last month, causing losses of $3.39 billion. Anhui and Guangxi provinces, along with more developed Zhejiang and Hubei provinces, have been the hardest hit.

Millions of soldiers and residents have been put to work patrolling and reinforcing the earthen dikes that channel the mighty Yangtze and its tributaries. When water seeps under the barriers and gurgles up through the dirt on the other side, workers use gravel and sand to stop the leaks and prevent a major dike burst.

Flood control officials say the largely low-tech approach is born of China's continued economic underdevelopment. A ministry spokesman said the government "will closely monitor the situation in order to ensure social stability," according to the New China News Agency. An average yearly death toll from floods in China is about 2,000, government officials have said.