SANSHUI, China (Reuters) - China’s southern industrial hub braced on Tuesday for floods that have already killed 169 across the region, adding to the toll of natural disasters that have pummeled the nation in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.
Officials in Guangdong province, the vast, densely populated economic powerhouse neighboring Hong Kong, warned of a “black June” as high tides, rain and two converging swollen rivers threatened levees, Xinhua news agency said.
Heavy rains in south China in the past 10 days have forced the evacuation of 1.66 million people, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said. Direct economic losses totaled nearly 15 billion yuan ($2.2 billion). The death toll covered the period since the flood season began at the beginning of the summer.
Guangdong expects possible flooding in the low-lying Pearl River Delta, which embraces several big export manufacturing zones, including Foshan, Zhongshan and the provincial capital, Guangzhou.
In the town of Sanshui, where plastics factories stand next to rice paddies, muddy-brown waters sloshed up to the windows of riverside homes.
In Shilong, a town further east in the Delta, a 64-year-old farmer, who gave only his surname, Liang, was tending to a small patch of yams, lotus and other vegetables on the river bank.
“The water came up to here,” Liang said, pointing at a spot on the levee about 10-12 feet above the river level. “It washed away all my cabbages.”
Four children at a middle school in Guangxi, the province to the west of Guangdong, were killed when an earth wall sodden by rain collapsed on them, Xinhua said. The wall was near their canteen and they had been on the way to dinner, it reported.
The typhoon season has begun, ensuring further disaster over the summer for the coast of sub-tropical Guangdong, home to 110 million permanent and migrant residents.
"The Pearl River Delta river network has suffered not only the biggest-volume floods in over 50 years but simultaneously also the highest tides in over 10 years," said a report on the Guangdong water resources office Web site (www.gdwater.gov.cn).
Rarely a year goes by when China does not suffer floods, drought and other disasters somewhere on its huge landmass.
Economists have said the cost of this flooding so far appears no greater than damage in previous years, and much smaller than losses from harsh weather that crippled Guangdong this winter or the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan that killed more than 70,000.
But Beijing is keeping a wary eye on the economic fallout.
The country’s sugar crop could suffer damage if the wet weather continues for another week, officials said. And Nestle, the world’s largest food group, halted production at its only coffee plant in China, based in Guangdong, because of flooding.
There were also signs of localized price spikes, a worry for China with inflation near its highest in more than a decade.
In a vegetable wholesale market in Shilong, Liu Juhua, a vendor, was peeling rotten leaves off cabbages ruined by the rain. Some prices had doubled, she said.
“With vegetable prices going up, people are going just to eat boiled noodles,” Liu said.
Parts of the quake zone and other provinces have also been battered by heavy rains and floods as Beijing prepares to host the Olympics in August.
In Wenchuan County, site of the quake epicenter, troops were struggling to reach close to 20,000 people threatened by landslides as heavy rains approached, Xinhua reported. More than 52,000 had already moved from threatened areas, the report said.
Flooding has struck as far north as Longnan, on the southern tip of Gansu province, north of Sichuan, where 365 died and 1.8 million were left homeless after the May 12 quake.
Roads and highways in Gansu suffered damage amounting to about 600 million yuan ($86 million), Xinhua reported.
The National Meteorological Centre forecast more downpours for nine provinces — including the already battered Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan and Jiangxi — across south and east China in the next two days, warning of floods, lightning and landslides.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley, Guo Shipeng and Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing; Editing by Roger Crabb