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Thousands evacuated as floods threaten a massive dam and a treasured Buddha in China

A person takes photos as water is released from the Three Gorges Dam, a gigantic hydropower project on the Yangtze River, to relieve flood pressure in Yichang, central China's Hubei province, July 19, 2020. STR/AFP/Getty

Beijing — Heavy rainfall has swelled China's Yangtze River, threatening UNESCO World Heritage Sites and forcing officials to reassure nervous citizens that the world's largest hydroelectric dam isn't about to breach.

The Three Gorges Dam and the reservoir it holds back saw the highest flood levels since it was finished in 2003, with an inflow peaking Thursday at almost 99,000 cubic yards of water per second for nine hours. The upper reaches of the Yangtze have been swollen by what the national Ministry for Water Resources said was the worst flooding since 1981.

About 100,000 people in Sichuan, along the upper Yangtze's banks, were evacuated this week as the province activated its highest-level flood control response for the first time on record.

While the threat to the 1.4-mile-long dam was serious, the Three Gorges Corp said the reservoir had prepared for the inundation by coordinating with other dams upstream to slow the flow.  

Water is released from the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, in Yichang, central China's Hubei province, June 29, 2020. STR/AFP/Getty

It's the monsoon season across much of Asia, but rainfall totals this year have broken records across China. Still, experts have sounded confident about Three Gorges Dam's ability to handle the deluge.

Zhang Boting, deputy secretary general at the China Society for Hydropower Engineering, said this year's rainfall could exceed that seen in 1998, when China was hammered by deadly flooding, but these days, "we are better at controlling it with the Three Gorges Project."

"Without it, the flood situation this year would be worse than 1998," he told CBS News in a phone interview. "The Three Gorges Dam has been doing a great job. We should understand that fully taming the flow of any river, the Yangtze River included, is simply beyond the realm of engineering."

An aerial photo taken on August 19, 2020 shows flooding in China's southwestern Chongqing city. STR/AFP/Getty

Zhang blames unfinished reservoir projects up river for the severe flooding in Sichuan and the area around the city of Chongqing.

"It'd be ideal if these projects can finish soon and together with them, Three Gorges Dam would work much better to control the floods," he said, adding that it would likely be at least a decade before that happens.

"It won't get worse from here," he said.

So far this year's floods have been blamed for 219 deaths and the evacuation of 4 million people, according to figures released last week by the Ministry of Emergency Management (MEM).

Washing Buddha's feet

The flooding was also threatening the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 1,200-year-old UNESCO world heritage site. The 233-foot-tall stone statue is carved into a cliff in Leshan Mountain, overlooking three converging rivers. An ancient proverb goes: "Giant Buddha wants to wash his feet, Leshan city can't fall asleep." In other words, if the water goes over Buddha's feet, the city of Leshan will be flooded.

Floodwater reaches the Leshan Giant Buddha's feet following heavy rainfall, in Leshan, Sichuan
Floodwater reaches the Leshan Giant Buddha's feet following heavy rainfall, in Leshan, Sichuan province, China, August 18, 2020. CHINA DAILY/REUTERS

The floodwaters rose over Buddha's toes for the first time since 1949 this week, according to the Leshan Buddha Scenic Spot Management Bureau.

The Bureau said Thursday, however, that the water had dropped back below the statue's feet, but they still needed to assess flood damage before it could be reopened to tourists.

Fantastic view of the Five Flower Lake with azure water
A view of the Five Flower Lake with among fall woods in Jiuzhaigou nature reserve (Jiuzhai Valley National Park), China. Getty/iStockphoto

The flooding also forced the closure of Jiuzhai Valley, another UNESCO world heritage site, famed for its stunning natural scenery of colorful lakes, mature forests, and spectacular waterfalls.

China has allocated 460 million yuan (about $66.5 million) to support flood control and disaster relief in four regions, the government said Wednesday.

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