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Death toll mounts from landslides in China

The death toll from landslides is mounting as rain brings further misery to China. The number of deaths caused by the weather is the highest the country has recorded since 1998.

In Sichuan province to the south, 500 people have been trapped by mud slides which killed five people. This area has already seen great suffering, when a massive earthquake hit in 2008, killing 80,000 people.

Heavy rain has also trapped more than 10,500 people in the northwest Gansu province, killing 20 people in Longnan and four in Tianshui city. The town of Zhouqu has been the worst affected in Gansu province, when it was engulfed by a huge avalanche of mud in the early hours of last Sunday morning. 1,117 people have been confirmed dead and 627 are still missing, many buried in the 300 buildings submerged in seconds when the disaster struck.

Flooding is a perennial problem in many regions of China and the Chinese army has a regiment of engineers who are trained and equipped with vehicles, mobile kitchens and cutting devices to handle these kind of emergencies. The army were quick to respond to the situation in the town of Zhouqu, arriving within three hours after the avalanche of mud hit.

However, even with all their equipment and sniffer dogs, the army were faced with a huge task of trying to locate those buried under the vast mounds of mud, with streets acting like rivers, as water continued to pour down from the hillsides.

The Chinese Ministry of Finance has promised 74 million dollars in aid to fund the relief effort and officials have already put a three-stage plan into operation to provide temporary shelters, then help organise accommodation with friends and relatives, before eventually rebuilding homes.

However some are questioning the wisdom of rebuilding in such a disaster prone area, particularly when the mud slides have been so devastating. And the disaster has again raised questions about how the economic growth in China comes at an environmental cost. A recent drought and the earthquake two years ago may have weakened rocks in the mountains above, but the area has also been made vulnerable by deforestation. Logging was banned in key areas 12 years ago, but has continued, in many cases illegally, as poor rural people rely on cutting down trees to sell wood for their livelihood.

In the future, the Chinese government has said it will focus on climate concerns and how to protect its people from the affects of environmental damage. After so many destructive land slides, one area of focus will need to be improved urban planning for those living in disaster-prone regions such as the poor and remote Gansu province.

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