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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 12:32 GMT 13:32 UK
China's flood-gate lake
Lake Dongting is the second largest freshwater lake in China, covering an area the size of Luxembourg.

It serves as an overflow for the great Yangtze river, whose swollen waters pour into the lake after heavy summer rainfall, preventing flooding further downstream.

But when the lake gets too full and breaks its banks, it threatens several large cities and 667,000 hectares (1.6m acres) of densely populated agricultural land.

Chinese soldiers carrying sand bags
Soldiers are being rushed in to help
The last time Lake Dongting flooded seriously, in 1998, 4,000 people lost their lives.

Some officials fear the situation this year could be worse.

France Hurtubise, a Red Cross Field Officer, said: "1998 was very much flooding as a consequence of the raising of the water level in the Yangtze river, whereas this year it's very much flash floods and landslides.

"People I spoke to said that this has never happened before in China, and some people said this was the worse since 1949".

The official Chinese media estimates that 10m people are at risk if the lake breaks its banks.


In all fairness, the Chinese government has done a lot since 1998

Edouard Vermeer
Thousands of hectares of land around the lake are below its swollen, summer level, being protected by 932 kilometres (580 miles) of dykes.

But most of the population at risk live in cities like Yueyang, with a population of 800,000. Further down river, the large city of Wuhan, whose population is over 7m, would also be affected.

"There are thousands if not millions of people in that area who are at risk of losing their crops, their houses and all their belongings," Ms Hurtubise said.

Filling up

The fact that flooding is a regular event has prompted some people to question whether the local government could do more to tackle the problem.

Harnessing the power of the Yangtze, the world's fourth longest river, has defeated Chinese officials for centuries.

But more intensive farming practises and competition for land in the last 50 years has made the situation more perilous.

According to Edouard Vermeer at Leiden University in the Netherlands, farming practices upstream from Lake Dongting have led to soil erosion and dislodged silt to build up in the lake.

"The lake has been reduced in size by about 80% since 1950, so what used to be a natural catchment area for the Yangtze river has now become very shallow indeed," he said.

But Professor Vermeer refutes allegations the Chinese government has failed to prepare adequately for flooding.

The government has relocated people from areas most at risk and tried to stop soil erosion by stopping new land reclamation and offering subsidies to convert farmland into forest.

"In all fairness, the Chinese government has done a lot since 1998. But one should realise that it's a huge river and the problems go back centuries," Professor Vermeer said.

See also:

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