Officially, the worst flooding of the Yangtze River in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangxi since the great flood of 1998 has passed its peak. But for hydraulics engineer Liu Liangwu, it is not the time to lower his guard. “I want the dyke to be widened,” he told villagers on Monday afternoon.
Liu is stationed at Jiangzhou, a town surrounded by water on the river delta in Jiujiang. It is protected by a 10km (6.2 miles) dyke which, this year, has not been enough it keep it safe. Water levels have risen slightly higher than the island and have been kept at bay by layers of plastic and sandbags built by the villagers and soldiers stationed there.
The floods, which have been moving steadily east along the Yangtze, swollen by torrential seasonal downpours, have now spread to 27 provinces. More than 34 million people have been affected and at least 140 are dead or missing, according to official figures, and provinces still in its path are bracing for their turn.
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On Monday, the Changjiang Water Resources Commission’s hydrology bureau said the flood peak had passed through the Jiujiang region, leaving it with a water level of 22.81 metres, the highest since 1998.
While live monitoring has shown the Yangtze has stabilised, other water bodies in the area – including China’s largest freshwater lake, Poyang – continue to pose a threat, according to Liu.
Poyang Lake, about 100km from Jiangzhou, reached a historic high of 22.6 metres on Monday – 3.6 metres past its most extreme alert level. Its waters were expected to continue rising on Tuesday before finally beginning to slowly recede over the next three days, according to the Jiangxi authorities.
Local governments have called for the evacuation of the elderly and children in several towns, including Jiangzhou. Meanwhile, the Jiangxi provincial government has advised towns in the lake regions to use reservoirs to intercept floodwaters, as well as open dams on semi-restoration dykes to release some water.
Residents along the Yangtze River and in the Poyang Lake region have come up with their own series of defence measures. People like Liu have been closely monitoring the water encroaching on their small towns, securing riverbanks and fortifying dykes to prevent breaches that could lead to the submerging of entire villages.
“In 1998, the dyke was breached early and the entire island was flooded,” said Shi Yuhua, a Jiangzhou villager who stayed to volunteer for anti-flood preparations. “If the water comes in, our houses and fields would be in danger. We all make a living on farming, the damage would be unimaginable.”
Villagers had been taking turns to patrol the dyke 24 hours a day, he said. Stations have been set up every few hundred metres, with 6-8 people inside.
But Liu is more worried about the rain. Even if the dyke holds, rising water could overflow to the island. For the past five days, he has been on constant patrols, telling villagers to keep adding height to the defence line with each rise of the water.
But there are signs of hope. Holding a wooden stick, on which he constantly marks the water levels, he said: “On Sunday, the water level rose more than 30cm (12 inches), but on Monday, only 2cm. If it keeps going like this, that would be excellent. Victory is just ahead.”
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