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Faces of the floods

By Sherilyn Amy

The 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,” she says.

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.



Economic devastation

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 to recover.

“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 health.”

Health threats

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 health bureau.

“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.


Consequences 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
Sherilyn Amy was a Federation information delegate based in China.

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