Faces of the floods
By Sherilyn Amy
worst flooding for 44 years hit China this year. Officially,
3,656 people died, 5 million houses were destroyed and 52 million
acres of land inundated. Economic losses have surpassed 27.7
billion Swiss francs. Behind the numbers are the stories of
the millions of people who have lost everything to the swelling
waters of the Dongting Lake and the Yangtze River.
Dark brown, murky water reflects a flickering glare of sunlight
into the creased, hooded eyes of a middle-aged woman, busily
re-weaving a fishing net she relies on to supplement her food
aid while she lives as a refugee from the flood waters on
a dyke in central China.
Liang Mei is one of 300,000 people living on a dyke, several
hundred kilometres long, in northern Hunan Province. It is
only one dyke in hundreds that, like islands, speckle some
21 million hectares of land swallowed by China’s flood-swollen
rivers and lakes. The Liangs, like everyone else, piled their
belongings up to make a makeshift frame to support plastic
sheeting or tarpaulings that half-heartedly succeeded in keeping
the rains at bay. They were told that they’ll live here
for more than three months...but who can tell how long it
will take to rebuild their home?
“All things are hard these days. We don’t have
much here so we have to keep what we have fixed and ready,”
Liang, one of some 14 million people left homeless by flooding
this year, had less than two hours warning to escape her family
farm. She left behind her one-room, brick home with most of
her clothes, furniture, equipment and personal mementoes.
Under the threat of thousands of litres of water slowly crushing
her village’s crumbling dyke, she gathered into a wagon
her son, some pots and buckets, a few clothes, blankets, and
headed for higher ground – a stable section of dyke
40 minutes walk away.
Her husband, Liang Chun, followed her to the secure dyke
leading the family cow as it pulled a cart with a few pieces
of furniture and what food they had in the house. Unfortunately,
the dyke near the Liangs’ farm didn’t hold long
enough for the family to harvest their rice. Their food supplies
are as limited as their prospects, now that their fields are
under two metres of water.
As aresult the Liangs’ family income dropped well
below the poverty line. Liang Chun hopes to leave the dyke,
like thousands of other men, and head to dry, neighbouring
villages to look for work. If he’s lucky enough to find
something, it will do very little to alleviate their future
economic crisis. With a full year’s crops lost, Liang
Chun thinks that it will take several years for his family
“There is little that I can do other than look for
work. Now we get some food and medicine from the government
and Red Cross, but what about the future...we need money to
rebuild,” he says.
The government of China seems to recognize this as well.
A recent report from a government-run news agency states that
price-stabilizing measures are being taken to ensure that
the areas affected most by flooding don’t feel the double
impact of seeing the price of staples, like meat, vegetable
and rice, skyrocket. There is also early talk about rehabilitation
programmes for all areas that have lost income and farmland
to flood waters.
But economic problems caused by this year’s floods
may not disappear overnight with a sweep of the government
policy pen. In the north, some 2,500 oil wells totalling 50
per cent of oil production for the country were under water.
South-eastern and central flooded provinces have some major
infrastructure damage, and have lost almost five million hectares
of crops – the area’s primary sources of income.
“The situation for these people is very difficult,”
explains Dr Chao, who was one of 10,000 Red Cross and public
health medical volunteer teams working in the area. “When
it’s not pouring rain, it’s incredibly hot and,
on top of their financial worries, they must worry for their
Dr Chao worked on this dyke for over three weeks. Its distance
from the city dictated that he live here while volunteering
his medical assistance – offering his services around
the clock if necessary. The majority of the approximately
80 patients he saw in a day were children with skin and eye
infections, and the elderly battling chest colds and flu.
Massive disease outbreak is a worry for everyone involved
in this year’s flood-relief work. Areas that are of
most concern are places where endemic disease are prevalent,
explains Dr Chen Xiao Chun, a director with the Hunan provincial
“Some flood areas have for years battled snail fever,
or schistosomiasis. Now that flood waters have inundated areas
where these snails breed, there is a possibility that we will
see an increase in this problem,” he explains. Since
the beginning of August, Chen’s department has been
working on a sanitation and epidemic prevention campaign that
is targeted at post-flood disaster disease prevention.
With 14 million people homeless, 3 million of whom are living
in makeshift shelters, the fast-approaching winter poses yet
another threat. Relief agencies are working hard to assist
those people, particularly in the north, who have little protection
against the bitter cold.
of rapid development
It’s said that a flooding river renews the soil of
adjacent farm land. In China, this flood has also renewed
discussions regarding environmental and flood- control policies.
Luo Di’an, a member of the standing committee of the
national People’s Congress which examined a report of
the state council on flood-control operations, was quoted
in national newspapers as saying that the raging floods of
1998 were caused by widespread deforestation, resulting in
serious soil erosion, and inadequate water conservancy projects.
Previously designated flood diversion areas along the Yangtze
are now home to 550,000 people making diversion impossible.
Forty per cent of the water storage capacity of the Dongting
Lake (Hunan Province) has been lost during the past five decades
to land reclamation.
The central government has responded by promising to shut
down timber factories along the upper reaches of the Yangtze
River in an effort to ban the indiscriminate felling of trees
there and expand its investment in water conservancy to six
times what it was in 1997.
Government officials promising to do something to alleviate
China’s flooding problems bring little comfort to people
like the Liangs. But right now their attention is focused
on how they’ll manage during the months ahead. As the
water recedes, a thick layer of polluted silt is left behind.
Before the Liang family can move back into their home, they
need to scoop mucky sludge out of each room. They also need
to clear their fields of pollutants before the contaminated
mud dries to a thick, cemented crust. In addition to cleaning
up their own backyard, they will probably be expected to help
rebuild the railways, roads and bridges that have disappeared
in the flood waters.
Liang Chun and his family face a crisis that will affect
their life for many years. “Almost everything we have
is in ruin. There is an ocean where our farm used to be. I
am not afraid of the hard work ahead. I’d rather be
working all day and night than sitting here looking at all
this water and wondering what can I do. Now I spend my time
worrying about how I will provide for my family.”
Sherilyn Amy was a Federation information delegate based in
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