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The Yangtze’s Wrath

August 12, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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PHIL PONCE: We’re now joined by David Lampton, director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s also director of China Studies at the Nixon Center, a think tank in Washington; Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research organization, and author of the book “Who Will Feed China?,” and Yu Shuning is the spokesperson for the Chinese embassy here in Washington. Gentlemen, welcome.

Mr. Yu, what is the latest in the fight against the flood and in helping the victims?

YU SHUNING, Chinese Embassy: Well, the situation is still very serious. In the last day or two the water levels at various places along the Yangtze dropped a little bit. But, as I understand, because of the heavy rainfall in the Three Gorges area, the fifth flood crest is forming. So we are still very much on alert to continue our fight against the flood.

PHIL PONCE: So there have been four flood crests so far, and you’re expecting a fifth.

YU SHUNING: Yes.

PHIL PONCE: Would you say that—would you say that the country is holding its own, is the country losing the battle? How would you describe that?

YU SHUNING: So far, we have been successful in containing the waters along the Yangtze. Of course, there was some breach. For instance, in the city of Jujung levee but with joint efforts by the civilians and the PLA officers and soldiers—

PHIL PONCE: People’s Liberation Army?

YU SHUNING: Yes. People’s Liberation Army—two dikes were actually built inside the city, itself, so the situation is stabilizing.

PHIL PONCE: Is that the main problem, whether or not some of these levees are strong enough to hold, to withstand the pressure?

YU SHUNING: Anyway, they are very much on the alert. They are trying to fortify these dikes to get ready for new crests.

PHIL PONCE: Prof. Lampton, you lived in the area that’s affected. Tell us a little bit about the area and why it’s important to China.

DAVID LAMPTON, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: Well, the river is complex, and there are different stages of the river, but basically it’s a very broad river. In many places it’s a mile wide, but going through the Three Gorges, it narrows considerably. Sometimes it spreads out and goes through lakes and other holding ponds. The area is a very hot area in China, so the people that are now displaced—and you’re talking about one percent of the Chinese population displaced at this point and many living on dikes are in tremendous heat and humidity, and so one of the attributes of this area is not just the water, but the tough physical environment that people are having to put up with you can expect, I think, despite the best efforts of China’s health authorities, water born disease, sewage disposal problems, and everything that goes with that, so this is an extraordinary problem the Chinese are facing.

PHIL PONCE: And from what you can tell, how good of a job is the government doing in responding to that?

DAVID LAMPTON: This is a mammoth thing that we’re talking about. We’re talking about 20 percent of the Chinese people affected in one way or another, 40 percent of China’s gross value of industrial and agricultural outlet, 30 percent of its population I think by any fair estimation you’d have to say the Chinese government is doing rather well. I would have to say too foreign press have not been allowed into the area, and I think it’ll be probably months before the outside world fully understands and probably the Chinese authorities, themselves, fully understands what’s happening in some of the more remote areas.

PHIL PONCE: I’d like to get back to Mr. Yu on the issue of foreign press coverage and accessibility, but Mr. Brown, first of all, in your estimation, is this primarily a problem of nature, or are there some manmade contributions to this flooding?

YU SHUNING: China always has floods. The intensity varies, and there are always floods in this river basin. The thing we have to realize is there are 400 million people living in the river basin. I don’t know Americans can even begin to understand how much pressure there is on land resources there. In this country we’d have to take the entire U.S. population, squeeze it East of the Mississippi River and multiply it by five to get a feel for the density of population in the inhabited region of China, which is mostly Eastern and Southern China.

PHIL PONCE: And that density and that population creates what kinds of pressures that might contribute to the flooding?

LESTER BROWN, Worldwatch Institute: For example, just making room for people means a lot of deforestation. 85 percent of the original forests covering the river basin is no longer there. So the capacity of the land to absorb and hold water has been greatly reduced as the population has built up over the generations.

The other thing that we have to keep in mind is not only are there not trees and forests there to hold the water and to absorb it anymore, but there’s an enormous amount of construction. The average size family in China is about 3.8 people, less than 4. And you have 400 million people living in that river basin. That’s 100 million homes, if you can sort of try to imagine that number. In addition, there are a lot of factories. I would guess that easily 50 million of the 400 million people are in the industrial work force.

The average size factory in China employs in the private sector less than 100 people, so we’re looking at 500,000 factories, and when you get this much building, plus streets and roads and so forth, you have a lot of areas that can’t absorb water at all, everything runs off, so when you have on the one hand less forest cover, in fact, very little forest cover left, and on the other hand, a lot of building, the runoff potential is enormous, and it will become even more so, and in the future, as industrialization progresses.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Yu, how about that, too much development, too much deforestation?

YU SHUNING: Actually, no, because as I see it, the disaster is more from Mother Nature, because, as we know, at first we had El Nino. Now we’re having the effects of La Nina, so because of the very heavy rainfall from this year much earlier than the last years, the river levels are very high, it’s places they reached record highs.

PHIL PONCE: So you’re saying it’s primarily a function of nature, not so much of what has been manmade or allowed by the government. How do you respond to Prof. Lampton’s concern, or the issue he raised, that there isn’t enough access necessarily on the part of the press to some of the areas, the concern being that things are much worse than the Chinese government is allowing people to see?

YU SHUNING: I’m not aware of any restrictions imposed on foreign press. As a matter of fact, we have so many shots, as we have seen, we have so many stories in the papers and over the TV screen, so I think the foreign journalists still have access to the areas hit by the floods. Of course, the reporting, I think, the coverage should be done in an orderly way, so I’m not aware of any restrictions, myself.

PHIL PONCE: Prof. Lampton, what are your thoughts on the issue of flooding some of the countryside in order to “save the cities?”

DAVID LAMPTON: Well, I’ve thought about the kind of political problem the Chinese have. They have this crest of water surging down this, in effect, canyon-like areas, and imagine the Mississippi River rising and between Illinois and Missouri, and this national government has to decide do we blow the retaining walls on the Missouri side, or the Illinois side to save St. Louis? And imagine the kind of political, economic, industrial, imagine what Sen. Ashcroft from Missouri versus Moseley Braun would think about that decision, so a fascinating part of this whole story is how to decide who is going to pay the price, because in a flood in China and particularly in the Yangtze River, you are talking about where to put cubic miles of water, spatially thinking of a cube of water a mile high, wide, deep, and where do you place that in an area that’s as densely populated and constructed, as Mr. Brown just said? That is a huge political problem.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Yu, how does the government make that decision?

YU SHUNING: Well, it’s a difficult decision to make, but we have to do that as a last resort. As we say, we have already relocated 13.8 million people to safety.

PHIL PONCE: Those people can’t be very happy about having their countryside flooded.

YU SHUNING: But in order to make the whole—overall interest of the country as a center, the presence they know—this is the best choice for the country. Besides, they will be compensated fully by the government, and secondly, their livelihood will be guaranteed. For instance, they will be provided with shelter, with clothing, daily necessities, and the government will see to it that every citizen, every locatee will have half a kilo of grain a day. So on the whole, the peasants are supportive of the measures the government has to take.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Brown, your reaction to that.

LESTER BROWN: It’s a tough political decision, and it’s sort of rural, small town versus big town. And as David was indicating, we actually had to make some of these decisions in ’93, when the Mississippi was in record flood stage, and there are no indecisions. They’re tough. The Chinese have a lot of experience with dealing with floods. But I do think that the—and I think they do remarkably well. I mean, they really mobilize in a way that we can’t even imagine. I mean, there are literally millions of people working to maintain the levees and watching them. They’re spaced every so many yards apart. It’s a remarkable mobilization that they’ve developed over the years. At the same time I think there is a very strong hand of man involved in the flooding, and it’s not easily avoidable. When you have this many people in such a small area, you’re going to have an increase in runoff, and you can’t retain all the forests and have all the people both. So it’s a tough one.

PHIL PONCE: I’m afraid we’re all out of time. Gentlemen, thank you all very much.