Chinese earthquake: Death toll reaches almost 15,000 as 'dangerous' cracks found in dam near city

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Officials say the death toll in the recent earthquake in China has reached almost 15,000. The news comes as 2,000 of the nation's troops were dispatched to the Zipingku Dam to repair "extremely dangerous" cracks in the structure, which is upriver from Dujiangyan City, already severely hit by the disaster.

Map showing the impact area of the quake and its epicentre.

It is feared the toll will rise much further as 60,000 people are missing after the 7.9 magnitude quake in Sichuan left entire towns "razed to the ground" with no buildings standing, according to officials in the area. At one destroyed school 178 children were found dead after the building collapsed while they slept inside it. A second school at Wudu, twenty miles from the epicentre behind the White Cloud Mountain, has 130 dead children and 150 more still buried and feared dead.

Zipingku Dam has had some water drained to ease the pressure on it. According to the Ministry of Water Resources' website "If Zipingpu develops a serious safety problem, it could bring disaster to Dujiangyan city downstream." Numerous other dams are also affected, including several others near Dujiangyan. In addition, experts from France's Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety say it cannot yet be ruled out that a number of nuclear power facilities in the area have been affected.

Shake map showing area affected.

50,000 troops have been brought to the area to provide assistance. However, emergency response is being made difficult by continuing poor weather and landslides that have cut off Wenchuan county. In Mianyang alone, one of the worst-hit cities, some 19,000 people are thought to be buried under rubble and the first rescuers to reach the epicenter state tens of thousands may be dead there as well. The Wenchuan town of Yingxiu has only 2,300 confirmed survivors from a 12,000-strong population. Some aid in the form of food, water and medicine has arrived by helicopter, but rotorcraft operations are very dangerous due to ongoing poor weather. Trucks loaded with noodles and biscuits were raided by crowds before the aid could be properly handed out. The People's Liberation Army intends to send in paratroopers.

“They had better set up a distribution system, or we will be stealing what we can,” one survivor promised.

Meanwhile, accusations of blame over the scale of the effects have been leveled at construction companies and local authorities. The allegations say that the firms used substandard techniques and materials when building many projects, and corrupt local authorities deliberately ignored the problem. Some people have nicknamed the resulting structures "tofu buildings", an allusion to the fact that they are alleged to be 'as soft as tofu'. "It's nothing but corruption - they must have used sub-standard cement and steel," said rescuer Dr Tian, who withheld his second name from journalists. It is also alleged that both local residents and international scientific organisations were ignored when they warned of a large impending earthquake.

As a mark of respect, the Olympic torch relay will be scaled back in response to the earthquake.