China orders evacuation amid quake flood fears
Thursday, 29 May 2008

Agency

Chinese authorities Tuesday ordered the evacuation of 80,000 people as troops scrambled to hold back a dangerously swelling lake formed by this month's devastating earthquake.

As the death toll from the May 12 quake jumped to 67,000, state press said that emergency workers aimed to move the residents from their homes near the so-called "quake lake" by midnight (1600 GMT) Tuesday.

Around 70,000 people were evacuated earlier from Beichuan County as concern rose that the lake -- formed when the quake triggered landslides that blocked the Jian river -- could overflow and surge downstream.

Heightening the sense of fear still stalking China's southwestern Sichuan province, a strong aftershock measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale rattled the area and was felt in the provincial capital Chengdu.

About 30 minutes later another aftershock measuring 5.7 shook neighbouring Shaanxi province, China's state news agency Xinhua reported.
He Yongnian, former deputy director of the China Seismological Bureau, was quoted by Xinhua news agency as saying that the aftershocks could "last for two or three months," complicating already difficult quake relief efforts.

Authorities have had to cope with thousands of aftershocks and a myriad of other dangers while trying to provide food, shelter and medical help for the millions left homeless across an area the size of South Korea.

In Beijing, cabinet spokesman Guo Weimin said the confirmed death toll stood at 67,183, with a further 20,790 missing.

One of the most urgent tasks now is trying to prevent the lake -- one of 35 said to be at risk -- spilling over and swamping an area that is home to some 1.3 million people.

Troops armed with dynamite are trying to blast channels through the debris blocking the river to reduce the level of the lake, thought to be holding some 130 million cubic metres (4.6 billion cubic feet) of water.

Liu Ning, the water resources ministry's chief engineer who is supervising the operation, said people were being moved for their own safety.

"It's better for them to complain about the trouble that the evacuation would bring than to shed tears after the possible danger," he said.

The lake is inaccessible by road and the teams of soldiers, engineers and police had to hike through remote and mountainous terrain.
However, predictions of further rain threatened to make the operation more difficult and caused jitters among locals living in makeshift camps near their collapsed homes.

Wang Sumu, 42, said the tents were "hot like ovens" in direct sunlight and "when it rains, they will be even more unbearable."

The government said last week that just over 5.4 million people lost their homes. Many now live in tents or hastily erected units in temporary camps, but an untold number are still living without any shelter at all.

Rain already hit nearby areas of southern China on Tuesday, with disastrous consequences. Flash floods and hail storms killed 18 people and left 12 others missing in Guizhou province, which borders Sichuan, Xinhua reported.

Another concern is the possible spread of disease in the disaster zone. A health ministry spokesman said Tuesday that mass emergency vaccinations would be carried out, but reported no major outbreaks thus far.

For the grieving survivors of the quake, there was some minor consolation after authorities announced that China's strict one-child policy would be eased to allow parents who lost a child to have another.

New guidelines allow couples who lost their only child to have a second as long as they get official permission, the Chengdu Evening News said.

China's one-child policy generally allows families living in urban areas to have one child and rural families two if the first is a girl.

The quake struck in the middle of the day when schools were full, sending entire floors crashing down and burying children in their classrooms.

Many parents are now demanding answers as to why so many schools collapsed so easily, amid allegations of lax government oversight that permitted shoddy construction work.

Li Huzhang, an engineer in the paramilitary People's Armed Police, said at least 50,000 cubic metres of debris would have to be removed but rescuers were aiming for 100,000 cubic metres to minimise the risk.

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