2,000 Die in China Floods

With more than 2,000 people already dead from flooding, China's government said Thursday it was ready to take the last-ditch step of breaking open dikes along the raging Yangtze River to protect areas downstream.

The decision on whether to safeguard some areas by inundating others could come as early as Friday, when a flood tide surging down the river approaches a major embankment already weakened by weeks of devastating floods and rain, officials said.

While officials said they believed such a step would not prove necessary, they were considering under the pressures brought by the worst flooding along the Yangtze in more than four decades.

The figure of more than 2,000 dead in this year's summer flood season, announced at a government news conference Thursday, was 700 higher than previous official figures. The floods have affected 240 million people, or a fifth of the population, to varying degrees, said Fan Baojun, vice minister of civil affairs.

About 90 percent of the victims died in the mountain floods, landslides and mudflows that swallowed houses and villages, he said.

Main embankments that hem in the Yangtze, the world's third-longest river, so far have held firm, protecting millions of people and rich farmland from its floodwaters.

But a flood peak, the fourth so far this year, was expected to reach the weakened Jingjiang dike in central China's Hubei province within the next two days, forcing officials to consider flooding an area south of the dike to protect the levee itself.

"The possibility of flood diversion cannot be discounted," said Zhao Chunming, a deputy director for flood control. "Preparations have already been made."

Other officials at the news conference, however, hastily sought to qualify Zhao's remarks.

"According to the situation now, it doesn't look like we need to divert water," said Zhou Wenzhi, a vice minister of water resources.

Written by John Leicester