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Chinese floods test country's resources

By Jaime FlorCruz, CNN Beijing Bureau Chief
Residents escape a flooded area Luozhen township, China, last month.
Residents escape a flooded area Luozhen township, China, last month.
  • China is experiencing its worst floods in years
  • Flooding is testing the Three Gorges Dam
  • Tens of thousands of soldiers, police, and volunteers have been deployed
  • China
  • Floods
  • Three Gorges Dam

Beijing, China (CNN) -- Millions of Chinese are struggling to stave off the country's worst floods in years, as heavy summer rains pour relentlessly across southern and central parts of the country.

Many tributaries and lakes of China's longest river, the Yangtze, are swollen and officials have warned that water levels are dangerously high and still rising.

As of July 12, heavy rain has already claimed more than 40 lives and affected 18.3 million people in the Yangtze region, according to the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters (SFDH). Flooding has destroyed 39,000 homes and nearly a million hectares of farmland, causing economic losses of $1.57 billion, Chinese officials have said.

In many areas, residents are now without electricity and clean water.

This year's flooding is severely testing the Three Gorges Dam. Built at an estimated cost of $24 billion, the massive dam is designed to help flood control, capable of holding back 22 billion cubic meters of extra flood water.

Video: Torrential rains claim lives in China

Many areas along the river's tributaries have been inundated but so far, Wuhan, Nanjing and Shanghai -- the three largest cities downstream from the Three Gorges -- have been spared disastrous flooding.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of soldiers, police and civilian volunteers have spread across 10 provinces to rescue stranded residents and reinforce embankments.

So far, China has avoided large-scale damage, thanks to its generally effective response. Few countries in the world are able to muster the leadership, manpower, and resources needed to respond to natural disasters like this, but China is one of them.

Beijing has put in place a top-down system that enables the government to respond quickly and effectively. It has also institutionalized close coordination among government ministries on the front line of disaster relief.

China has even set up a special office called "General Command Office to Prevent Flooding and Drought" under the State Council, China's cabinet.

Ramsey Rayyis, regional representative of American Red Cross in China, had praise for the Chinese efforts.

"From my experience, the Chinese government and the Chinese Red Cross are doing a commendable job in responding to emergencies, whether it's flooding, earthquakes and other natural disasters. The Sichuan earthquake is one of the biggest challenges they faced in many, many years. Certainly there were gaps in some of that response but from what I've seen, they've redeveloped their response plans and they've repositioned stocks on the part of the Chinese Red Cross for better, quicker attention for those who need it. The recent flooding and earthquakes have shown they are able to respond efficiently and quickly."

Rayyis credits China for taking their responsibilities seriously.

"They recognize that with a population of this size and the magnitude of the disasters that occur in this country, they have a responsibility to take it seriously." Rayyis also cites the lack of "layers of agencies and bureaus that compete for resources", as there are in some other countries. He said: "In many ways, the government is able to come down and directly respond and shoot down the line. There are of course gaps to that but, for the most part, they are able to act more quickly just because of the nature of their structure."

Chen Dianlong, vice director of the General Command Office to Prevent Flooding and Drought, said, "Everyone knows more than 70 percent of disasters relate to weather.

We have a network in place to monitor and signal bad weather. We have improved our information distribution system and have increased its accuracy."

He said China's weather observatory department now boasts 374,000 staff nationwide. In recent years, China has also launched satellites to improve its weather forecasting.

On the ground, China has put together a network of government functionaries and volunteers to perform disaster relief. Led by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, they form the backbone of grassroots operations that involve public participation through quasi-government groups like the Chinese Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations.

China relies most heavily on the 2-million-strong People's Liberation Army (PLA), a standing army that is highly disciplined and organized. The PLA is capable of sending contingents of soldiers whenever and wherever disasters strike. It may not always have sophisticated equipment and logistics, but as the soldiers have shown in this year's flooding, they make a difference in saving lives and property even with just their bare hands, trucks and small boats.

China also does a good job in using the media.

"We use the media to enhance public awareness of disaster prevention," said Chen. Chinese officials also use media to assure the public. By giving prominence to the measures the government is taking, they are able to show that the government has everything under control.

That is the signal that Beijing sends out when Chinese television shows Premier Wen Jiabao visiting disaster areas, as he did last month, inspecting the disaster-ravaged areas in southwestern Guangxi province, helping rescue workers, and comforting victims.

"More efforts should be taken to safeguard public safety," Wen ordered local officials.

China has been delivering emergency supplies of food, blankets, and tents to the nearly one million people who have been displaced. But the bigger, long-term challenge will be how to help the flood victims rebuild their lives. That will take a lot more resources, money and time.

China, which is regularly hit with typhoons each summer, is bracing for the worst. This year's typhoon season has been unusually severe, and it is only halfway over.

Will Randall contributed to this report.