A million on evacuation alert in quake zone

Chinese authorities prepared to begin draining a swelling earthquake-formed lake today after evacuating nearly 200,000 people and warning more than a million others to be ready to leave quickly.

The lake, called Tangjiashan, formed above Beichuan town in the Mianyang region of Sichuan province when a hillside plunged into a river valley during the May 12 quake.

Authorities fear the waters could burst and flood the area, endangering hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are already shattered by the earthquake.

The official Xinhua News Agency said work on a run-off channel from Tangjiashan had been completed. It quoted Yue Xi, deputy chief of the water and electricity section of the People’s Armed Police, as saying the channel “is expected to discharge flood water” between today and Tuesday.

The confirmed death toll from China’s worst quake in three decades was raised yesterday to 68,977, an increase of about 120 people from a day earlier.

Another 17,974 people were still missing, the State Council, or Cabinet, said. The daily increase was the smallest since the government started announcing death tolls shortly after the quake hit.

Xinhua said “a total of 197,477 people were evacuated to safe ground as of 8am Saturday”. It did not say how the number was determined. Some of the people may have been in the path of the planned run-off.

State television showed bulldozers and other heavy earth-moving equipment working on the water diversion channel. It did not show how far up the landslide the channel had been carved.

Xinhua said Tan Li, the Communist Party chief of Mianyang, had issued another order for all 1.3 million people in the area to be evacuated if “the barrier of the quake lake fully opens” and floods the area.

There was no sign that the banks of the lake were about to burst. Troops have sealed off Beichuan to the public.

Tangjiashan is the largest of more than 30 lakes that have formed behind landslides caused by the quake, which also weakened man-made dams in the mountainous parts of the disaster zone.

Millions of people in Sichuan are already living in tent camps and prefabricated housing, which have taken on the tone of new villages.

In Mianyang, about 200 families left their camps in flood-prone areas of the city and moved to higher ground in a wooded park on Fule Mountain. Most had camping tents and shelters made of tarpaulins pitched under trees amid ornate gazebos and tea houses with traditional sloping yellow-tiled roofs. Red signs on the buildings said “Dangerous building, don’t come near”.

One woman who only gave her surname, Wang, who was living in a camouflaged tent set above the ground on wood planks, said life was uncomfortable but fine under the circumstances. “We’ve got all the basics. Those who are out of work are being given food, but my company is taking care of me,” she said.

Xinhua also reported that President Hu Jintao arrived yesterday to check on relief efforts in Shaanxi province. He was shown on state TV at a shelter talking to children who had been left homeless by the earthquake. Just to the north of Sichuan, Shaanxi also suffered damage in the earthquake.

Another province hit by the earthquake, Gansu, plans to complete its rebuilding by the end of 2010, the governor said.

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