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China blames floods on deforestation

BBC News, 22 August 1998

The authorities in China have admitted for the first time that excessive exploitation of natural resources could be behind this year's devastating floods.

China Daily and the official Xinhua news agency said that serious soil erosion caused by tree felling and other activities had silted up areas which usually acted as overflows for excessive rain.

The articles appeared as efforts continued in north-eastern China to hold back record high water levels around Harbin city in north-east China.

Flooding has been 0.75m higher than in 1957, the year that held the previous record for the worst flooding.

Hundreds of thousands of troops and civilians worked to protect embankments along the Songhua river, where the third flood crest in recent weeks has put pressure on embankments.

Local officials said there had been no major breaches, but there had been some leaks. Troops have been reinforcing the embankments with more sandbags and pumping out water which has seeped through.

Some 400,000 troops, police and civilians have been on the alert in the city and outlying areas, while residents of an island opposite the city centre - normally a popular tourist resort - have been evacuated.

While downtown defences have generally held, lower-lying land on the edges of Harbin is already under water and some people have been forced to leave their homes.

One of main bridges across the river has been closed and state television has reported that troops have been called in to help re-open the city's flooded waterworks.

The waterfront Stalin Park has been closed after water seeped through a hastily-built wall of sandbags.

Further along the river, divers were called in to find the source of another leak.

The president of China, Jiang Zemin, has postponed a trip to Russia and Japan because of the severity of the floods.

The immediate danger to China's biggest oilfields around Daqing, near Harbin, has receded, even though hundreds of wells remain under threat.

Throughout Harbin, people have been donating money to flood-relief efforts and a nationally-televised charity concert featuring pop stars and celebrities - some from Hong Kong and Taiwan - collected a reported $45m.

An editorial in the offical People's Daily newspaper has called for national unity in the continued fight against the flooding. It reported that if the people stood together, they would prove the superiority of the socialist system and win a final victory.

Not everyone has joined in the spirit. One local newspaper reported that four people had been arrested after stealing lorry loads of sand intended for Harbin's flood defences.

And as flood defences are strengthened in China's cities, villages are being surrendered to the waters.

In Controlling Water village in the Northern Chinese province of Heilongjiang, the main street is awash after the river broke through a dike.

The devastation is just as widespread in central China where the Yangtze river has remained above emergency levels for more than a month.