River Threatens China Quake Survivors
CHENGDU, China — Wedged between two fractured mountains, engineers, construction workers and soldiers were racing Wednesday to relieve pressure on a dammed river that threatens millions of people who live downstream, most of them survivors of the earthquake on May 12 that ranks as one of China’s deadliest natural disasters in 30 years.
Times reporters are answering readers’ questions about the earthquake, its aftermath and the Chinese government’s response.
A list of agencies providing relief in the earthquake zone.
During the past two days, more than 600 people have been working around the clock to create a sluice above the village of Tianlin, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. The channel, being dug by hand and with excavating machines that were airlifted to the site, would drain water from a fast-rising reservoir created by an avalanche of rock and mud that spilled into the river, the Bai He, during earthquake.
In recent days, at least 160,000 people have been evacuated, although hundreds of thousands of others are still living downstream, most of them in temporary camps that are proving a formidable challenge to the government as it struggles to provide food, water and shelter for more than 15 million displaced people.
Government officials on Wednesday raised the quake’s death toll by 1,000, to 68,100; another 21,000 people are still missing.
Engineers have said they need at least a week to dig a drainage canal to reduce pressure on the dam, which is blocking the Bai He two miles upstream from the devastated town of Beichuan.
During an earthquake relief cabinet meeting in Beijing, Hui Liangyu, a vice premier, expressed urgency, saying “any negligence will cause new disasters to people who have already suffered the quake,” Xinhua said on Wednesday. During the same meeting on Tuesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told ministers that alleviating the risk of flooding from 34 so-called quake lakes was “the most pressing task” for the government. Officials also announced that $29 million in emergency funds would be allocated to the effort.
One water resources official told Agence France-Presse that the evacuations were moving too slowly. “Sometimes local governments think that evacuation is too much trouble, and they’re betting it won’t really be necessary, because they’re not sure how big the risk might be,” he said.
Cai Qihua, a local water management official, told The China Daily that the water was quickly approaching the top of the rubble wall, rising nearly 7 feet a day. He said another 75 feet remained until the water reached the top of the dam, although it is not clear whether that would cause the barrier to crumble.
Japanese officials said they were considering a Chinese request to provide tents and blankets to the homeless. During a press conference in Tokyo, Nobutaka Machimura, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said Wednesday it was unclear whether Beijing would allow the Japanese military aircraft to deliver aid. If so, it would mark the first time that the military would touch down on Chinese soil since Japan’s brutal World War II occupation.
During the cabinet meeting in Beijing on Tuesday, the ministers said the government’s relief efforts had reached a “new stage,” one that should focus on burying the dead, feeding the living and preventing an outbreak of disease through a massive inoculation campaign. They also said work should begin on reconstruction, including the restoration of crippled industries.
The ministers, however, suggested that some badly damaged towns might never be rebuilt. They said residents would be relocated, although it provided no further details. According to Xinhua, the members of the state council urged that “social order should be maintained in the quake zones.”
In several towns, parents continued to agitate for a speedy government investigation into why so many schools collapsed during the earthquake, killing thousands of students and teachers. In Shifang, more than 300 parents whose children died at the Jiandi Middle School protested at the gates of the local government, according to Boxun News.
In Dujiangyan, a group of 500 parents gathered at a tent temporarily housing the city’s education bureau and demanded that provincial officials investigate why the Xin Jian school collapsed, killing at least 300 children. They also asked that those responsible be punished and that bereaved parents receive compensation.
According to the father of a 9-year-old girl who died at the school, about a dozen parents were allowed to talk to officials, although they left feeling dissatisfied. “They only offered some hollow ‘official talk,’” said the man, who would only give his surname, Qin.
Encouraged by another group of parents who protested in Mianzhu on Sunday, Mr. Qin said the parents would stage their own “mourning” rally on June 1, which is Children’s Day in China, a national holiday.