BEICHUAN, China (Reuters) - China has evacuated more than 150,000 people living below a swollen lake formed by this month’s devastating earthquake amid fears it could burst and trigger massive flooding, state media said on Wednesday.
Japan’s military will also fly tents and blankets to China after Beijing asked for help, Kyodo news agency said.
The Tangjiashan lake was created when landslides caused by the May 12 quake blocked the Jianjiang river above the town and county of Beichuan in mountainous Sichuan province, near the epicenter of China’s most destructive earthquake in decades.
The official death toll from the 7.9 magnitude quake is already more than 68,000 and is certain to rise further, with nearly 20,000 listed as missing. Aftershocks on Tuesday toppled 420,000 houses, many already uninhabitable.
China’s request to Japan, which Tokyo said it was considering, would mark the first time Japan’s military has been deployed in China since the end of World War Two and underscores the huge challenge the country is facing to rebuild.
Sino-Japanese ties, long troubled by Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of China from 1931-45, have been on the mend in recent months and Japan sent rescue teams and a medical team to Sichuan province shortly after the May 12 quake.
Chinese President Hu Jintao told a group of visiting Taiwanese politicians that relief efforts were proving hard.
“The quake’s massive destruction, huge casualties and the extremely difficult relief work are all very rare in history,” Hu said. “It has caused great losses to human lives and property. We are deeply saddened.”
The government has also reduced import taxes to zero on vaccines, antibiotics and the blood product antiserum, the Finance Ministry said.
As it struggles to provide relief to the stricken region, authorities were also trying to stave off further disaster from its unstable dams and reservoirs.
Downstream from the Tangjiashan lake, residents were evacuated overnight as engineers dug a diversion channel to prevent flooding.
Up to 1.3 million people could be relocated if the lake barrier collapses entirely, the China Daily said in its online edition.
In Taihong, resident Han Haiyun, 60, was lucky to be away from her house when a landslide demolished her village.
“I would never have thought something like this could happen in my life,” she said. “It’s impossible to put into words.”
The water level in the lake, one of 35 “quake lakes” formed by the tremor and holding the volume of about 50,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, has kept rising and the giant sluice would not be ready for another week, the China Daily quoted experts as saying.
Over the last century, about 5,500 people have been killed by flash floods when barrier lakes burst through dams made by landslides, according to a 2004 paper by geologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
In 1786, the breach of a landslide dam 10 days after a major earthquake killed about 100,000 people in Sichuan.
The region along the faultline is densely packed with dams, raising concerns that if either the quake lakes or the weakened dams burst, the rush of water could cause others to fail.
The earthquake will also make it difficult for China to meet its target of limiting inflation this year, a senior official said, because of the damage to agricultural production and heavy investment in reconstruction work.
“At present it’s very hard to say concretely how many percentage points of pressure will be exerted, but there is definitely pressure,” said Xu Xianchun, deputy head of the National Bureau of Statistics.
Meeting the country’s 2008 inflation target of 4.8 percent would be “very hard”, he said.
But Mu Hong, a vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, said the earthquake would have a serious impact on the economy of the disaster-hit regions though barely weigh on national growth.
“According to our research, the quake has had only a very limited impact on economic fundamentals,” he told a news conference.
Beijing has allocated 200 million yuan ($29 million) to Sichuan especially for defusing the threat of the quake lakes, 28 of which were still rated as dangerous, Xinhua news agency said.
The country also released about 4,400 tonnes of edible oil and more than 15,000 tonnes of grain from its reserves to help maintain supplies and price stability in affected areas, the National Development and Reform Commission said.
A massive relief effort, which involves providing food, tents and clothing for millions and the reconstruction of housing and infrastructure, is expected to take up to three years.
Writing by Nick Macfie and Lindsay Beck; Additional reporting by Beijing bureau, and Teruaki Ueno and Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo; Editing by Jeremy Laurence