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New landslides in China leave 38 missing

Chinese rescuers continue to search for survivors in Zhouqu, northwest China's Gansu province on August 11, 2010. Fresh heavy rains brought more misery to a town in northwest China devastated by mudslides that have already killed more than 1,100, with new floods leaving more people missing. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Beijing (AFP) Aug 14, 2010
Heavy rains triggered landslides Saturday that left at least 38 missing in southwest China, state media said, adding misery to a nation already battling with huge floods and a massive mudslide that has claimed over 1,200 lives.

Landslides destroyed hospital buildings in Wenchuan county, the epicentre of an earthquake in May 2008 that left nearly 87,000 dead or missing, the official Xinhua news agency said.

No deaths were immediately reported in the landslides, but 38 people were missing and 10,000 people had been evacuated, Xinhua said. The government turned schools and municipal office buildings into temporary shelters.

Debris blocked a river creating a flood lake in Yingxing Township and more than 4,000 people and about 1,300 vehicles were stranded on blocked roads.

A 200-metre (220-yard) stretch of the only highway linking Wenchuan with Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, was covered with water four metres deep, the report said.

Authorities warned torrential rains would continue into Sunday and said further flash floods, landslides and floating debris continued to pose dangers in Sichuan and neighbouring Gansu province, Xinhua said.

China announced Sunday would be a day of mourning for the more than 1,200 people who died in last weekend's mudslides in Zhouqu, a remote mountain town in Gansu in the northwest.

Flags were to fly at half-mast on Sunday and public entertainment was to be suspended for the day of mourning to express condolences for the mudslide victims, China's State Council, or Cabinet, said Saturday.

The Culture Ministry issued an order saying recreational activities, such as movies, karaoke and online games and music, should be suspended on Sunday.

The heavy rains have affected more than 305 million people and caused 1.7 billion dollars in economic losses, Xinhua said, citing the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters agency.

The report did not give details on how the vast numbers of people have been affected.

In mudslide-stricken Zhouqu, 505 people were still missing after last weekend's avalanche of mud and rocks, which levelled an area five kilometres (three miles) long and 300 metres wide.

The official death toll in Zhouqu stood at 1,239 as of Saturday.

Health authorities said survivors of the deadly floods and landslides in Zhouqu faced a grim situation after clinics were damaged and vaccines ruined.

However, relief workers continued to gradually restore water, power and telecommunication services in Zhouqu, Xinhua reported Saturday.

Elsewhere in Gansu, new floods and landslides killed 29 people and left 27 missing in the cities of Longnan and Tianshui close to Zhouqu, Xinhua said.

About 10,600 residents in Longnan were evacuated after more than 150 millimetres (six inches) of rain fell overnight on Wednesday.

The mudslides in Zhouqu are the latest in a string of weather-related disasters across China. More than 2,100 people have been left dead or missing and 12 million evacuated nationwide, not including the toll from the Zhouqu incident.

The civil affairs ministry said Friday it had not calculated a new nationwide flood death toll.

China's meteorological agency also warned Saturday heavy rains would return to the country's northeastern regions after several days of respite, issuing an alert for the northeastern provinces of Jilin, Liaoning and Heilongjiang.

Since June, rain-triggered floods have left 85 people dead and 67 others missing in Jilin, according to the local flood control authorities.

related report
China mudslides highlight cost of rapid economic growth
Mudslides devastating northwest China are a grim reminder of the high cost of the country's breakneck economic growth -- a development model experts say policymakers know must be changed.

Activists have blamed the deadly landslides in Gansu province on years of unchecked development in the mountainous region as local governments cut down trees, built roads and developed hydroelectric dams in the name of growth.

It is a scenario that has been played out across the country as authorities try to lift millions of people out of poverty and further their own careers by attracting investment and spurring growth -- with scant regard to the local environment.

"The tragedy in Zhouqu is a reflection of the challenges and risks economic growth brings to poor regions," Li Yan, climate change and energy campaigner for Greenpeace China, told AFP.

"Local governments are under pressure to alleviate poverty and develop the economy -- in that process, there is environmental damage and degradation."

Rapid industrialisation in the past 30 years has left China, the world's third-largest economy, with some of the world's worst water and air pollution and widespread environmental damage.

Beijing has set ambitious targets to curb emissions and pledged billions of dollars to clean up its environment amid fears that severe pollution could lead to social instability and be a drag on economic growth.

"There has been a greater recognition that quality of life and environmental and consumer protection matter and that they are worth paying for economically," said Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing.

Authorities have insisted the mudslides in Zhouqu, which have left more than 1,700 people dead or missing, were a natural disaster triggered by torrential rains.

But activists and state-run media have questioned that version, warning the mountains around Zhouqu were extremely unstable and easily subject to natural disasters such as landslides.

"The construction of small hydroelectric dams, mine exploration and building of roads has seriously affected the ecosystem and given rise to the hidden dangers of man-made landslides," the National Business Daily said.

There are more than 1,000 hydroelectric dams along the Bailong River, which flows through Zhouqu, the report said, citing Zhang Qirong, an official with the local river and forest management bureau.

Debris from the mountains above blocked the river at the weekend, flooding the surrounding area.

China, which has recorded double-digit economic growth for the past three quarters, has been hit by a series of environmental disasters in recent weeks.

An explosion at an oil storage depot in the northeastern city of Dalian last month spewed 1,500 tonnes of crude into the Yellow Sea, according to the authorities, although Greenpeace says the spill may have been 60 times that size.

Also last month, a toxic spill from a gold mine in southeastern China contaminated a major waterway, killing nearly 2,000 tonnes of fish.

Despite the rising number of environmental accidents -- reportedly up 98 percent in the first six months of this year -- China has made substantial progress in improving environmental protection, experts say.

"The truth is they are moving along and are starting to make progress on various pollutants, but they have a big job," said Deborah Seligsohn, China programme director for the Washington-based think tank World Resources Institute.

"There's no question that when you are growing at 10 percent a year, the challenges are great.

"On the other hand, revenues are increasing and people feel they can afford to spend more on environmental protection... so the stars are well aligned."

China has pledged to reduce its carbon intensity -- the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product -- by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 based on 2005 levels.

The government has said officials who fail to achieve emission reduction targets will be punished, and have ordered the shutdown of thousands of high-polluting, energy-guzzling factories.

But these targets will be difficult to achieve while Beijing continues to reward local government officials on the basis of their economic achievements rather than their efforts on environmental protection, experts said.

"Local officials are rewarded for bringing in investment and maximising growth so that shapes their behaviour. They are only punished if an (environmental) accident causes embarrassment or loss of life," said Chovanec.

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Rains bring new misery to China mudslide town
Zhouqu, China (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
Heavy rains on Thursday compounded the misery of a Chinese town devastated by mudslides that have killed 1,144 people, with new floods hampering relief efforts and the stench of death pervasive. Thousands of soldiers and rescuers battled to clear roads blocked by cascades of mud and sludge unleashed by storms overnight, complicating the task of getting food, water and medicine to people in d ... read more

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