When Xu Mingxiu woke on the morning of July 8, she found her home in western China's Sichuan province surrounded by menacing red floodwaters. She rushed outside, bought some coal, and returned shortly before electricity and water were cut off. As the waters rose, 40-year-old Xu and her family huddled on the top floor of their house. Outside boats weaved between building tops; window frames floated in the water. For days they lived on corn stew cooked over a coal fire. "I got more and more scared," she says. "Qu county floods every year. But this is the biggest flood I have seen. It rose much higher than I expected."
Xu's experience will be familiar to many Chinese, for whom the annual summer floods bring similar misery. But this year, the pain is being felt more widely than it has in a decade. More than 200 million people have been affected, including 5 million who have been evacuated from their homes, according to the Red Cross Society of China. More than 700 people have died. "It's already quite serious," says Victor Kan, relief coordinator for World Vision China. "We're still waiting to see what will develop."
The hardest-hit areas include a swath of central China along the Yangtze River in Sichuan, Hubei and Anhui provinces. The Three Gorges Dam on the Upper Yangtze began to release flood water Monday, and boat traffic in the dam's lock was stopped. "The Three Gorges Dam has opened 18 sluices and the water level in the reservoir will continue to rise," a worker told the state-run Xinhua news service. "The safety of the dam will be tested." To the north, the level of the Huai River has begun to drop, but not before causing widespread destruction in six provinces. Flooding has also affected the Xinjiang region in west China and Yunnan province in the south. In all, floodwaters have inundated parts of at least 24 of China's 34 provinces and regions.
Although the floods have affected more people than have suffered in many previous years, the death toll of 700 remains comparatively low — in 1998, 4,185 died; last year 2,704. were killed. Relief experts attribute this year's lower toll to improved planning and communications that allowed most people to escape before the waters rose this year. "Because of early warning systems and government preparations, many villages were evacuated," says Gu Qinghui, regional disaster management delegate for the Red Cross.
With nearly one in every seven citizens affected in some way by the floods, the government has prioritized flood relief and response operations. Late last month, President Hu Jintao visited flood victims in the southwestern city of Chongqing. "You have gone through a lot of hardships," Hu told them, according to state media. "The once-in-a-century rains and floods have destroyed your homes and washed away your belongings. I feel sad as you all, and we must have the determination and courage to get over the disaster."
Some good news came Wednesday when 69 coal miners were rescued after being trapped underground by floodwaters that poured into an abandoned shaft. They had spent more than three days underground, nourished only by milk poured through a ventilation hole and drunk out of upturned helmets, the Beijing News reported. Elsewhere, the outlook remains grim, with more than a week of heavy rain expected in several parts of the country.
In Sichuan's Qu County, the floodwaters have now receded. But with crops destroyed and livestock killed, the prices for meat and vegetables are soaring. And, as residents begin to rebuild, they also think about what could happen next time. "The floods in this area have gotten worse and worse over the years," says Xu. "I was never worried about the flood. But now I am."