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What we can learn from China’s river of sorrow

China takes flood control to space, with the launch of two natural disaster-monitoring satellites. From June to August, floods in China killed 436 people, damaged almost seven million hectares of farms and swept away over three lakh homes. Reshma Patil tells more...

world Updated: Sep 08, 2008 01:56 IST
Reshma Patil

On Saturday, China took flood control to space, with the launch of two natural disaster-monitoring satellites. From June to August, floods in China killed 436 people, damaged almost seven million hectares of farms and swept away over three lakh homes.

But the casualties, going by official figures, were 79 per cent lower this time compared to last year. And fewer homes and farms were ruined.

One of the worst-hit provinces in terms of numbers was Hubei, where thee world’s largest dam slices the world’s longest river.

The Chinese call the 600-feet tall Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river the nation’s greatest construction since the Great Wall.

It produces clean energy with an

installed capacity equal to almost 15 nuclear power plants, but its main goal is to tame

the Yangtze.

The 6,300 km long Yangtze is a lifeline to one-third of China's population, but deadly when it floods. The "river of death", as it's commonly called, swept to death over 30,000 thousand in 1954 and over 1,000 in 1998.

The dam was built to reduce the frequency of its worst floods from once in 10 years to once a century, thus protecting 15 million people and 1.5 million hectares of farmland.

"With respect to flood control, the dam has helped alleviate a major constraint to development along the lower Yangtze valley. It would periodically suffer fatalities and damages from floods,'' engineering geologist Ioannis Fourniadis at ArupGeotechnics, who has studied the Yangtze, told HT from London.

Construction of the dam was completed in 2006, after controversially displacing over a million people, destroying towns, heritage sites, farms and forests. Dissent against the dam was clamped down, and opponents risked imprisonment.

But last year, a new wave of criticism rose from none other than government officials. Last year, China's conservative State-run media Xinhua caused a stir by reporting that officials were worried the dam could cause an environmental 'catastrophe'.

Xinhua quoted Tan Qiwei, the vice-mayor of boomtown Chongqing, saying that the reservoir's shore had collapsed in 91 places and 36 km had caved in.

Officials were quoted saying that the "huge weight of the water behind the dam had started to erode the Yangtze's banks in many places, which, together with frequent fluctuations in water levels, had triggered landslides”.

Disaster-control official Huang Xuebin, said “landslides around the reservoir had produced waves as high as 50 meters, which crashed into the shoreline, causing more damage”.

Opinions still remain sharply divided on the dam's flood control benefits versus the man-made disasters it has triggered.