Floodwaters released from a dammed river Tuesday washed over some towns destroyed in China's earthquake, adding urgency to a government effort to relocate people from the worst-hit areas.
Low-lying areas were submerged as soldiers drained water from a 'quake lake' formed when a nearby river was blocked by a landslide. Soldiers have used bulldozers, excavators and even missiles to carve a sluice channel and reduce the danger that the water would burst through the piles of rock and flood the city of Mianyang below.
For many survivors of the May 12 earthquake, the flooding underscored the realization that they wouldn't be able or allowed to move back to their ancestral homes. While some survivors are trickling back home to start rebuilding, tens of thousands of people here in the mountainous county of Beichuan are still waiting to find out where home might be.
China's government is seeking to relocate the population of several entire towns in the areas worst-hit by the quake.
The quake so heavily damaged some towns that they can't be rebuilt. Other places are so at risk from future earthquakes and landslides that they won't be rebuilt.
Perhaps chief among them is Beichuan, a home of the Qiang minority and site of some of the most intense damage. Landslides buried entire villages here, killing about 15,600 people out of a prequake population of 161,000. An additional 4,000 or so are still missing.
The earthquake crumbled the mountainsides surrounding Beichuan's county seat, burying a third of it in a wave of boulders that crushed buses and burst holes through buildings. The abandoned town has been slated to be turned into a museum commemorating the quake's victims, although the flooding of the town could affect those plans.
Officials are planning to relocate the county seat and hope to move more than 30,000 residents out of dangerous areas, local Communist Party secretary Song Ming told reporters at a resettlement camp here, 2.5 miles south of the abandoned town.
Mr. Song said he spent Tuesday morning helping to evacuate the scattered remaining residents in soon-to-be-flooded areas of Beichuan county.
'There's no way I can go back there and live,' says Deng Jiakun, a 71-year-old farmer from a village in Beichuan county. 'I don't know where to go next. I don't have any money and my home is gone, my farm and even my three pigs are gone,' he says, squatting on the floor of his tent in a refugee camp in Mianyang.
The homeless of Beichuan are now waiting for official guidance on where they should go. 'It's up to the government,' Mr. Deng says.
But creating new towns from scratch isn't an easy task. 'We are not only thinking about how to rebuild our homes, but about how to create industries that can provide a stable income for our people,' says Mr. Song, the Beichuan party secretary. 'We need strong support from the central government, both on the policy front and financially.'
Though the figures are far from definitive, some scholars think perhaps 200,000 inhabitants of mountainous areas in the earthquake zone will need to be permanently resettled.
Finding land, homes and jobs for that many people could be tricky. Sichuan is one of China's most densely populated provinces, where farms and cities crowd against each other. And it is hard for both quake survivors and officials to make longer-term plans as they contend with pressures from shorter-term relief operations.
'It's difficult to start talking about relocating people, because we are very sympathetic to their suffering and trying to help them,' says Chen Guojie, a professor at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, one of the many academic bodies consulted on the government's relocation plans. 'But we have to think about the longer term. We need to think about what resources there are in the disaster-hit areas.'
Villages on or below steep mountain slopes are particularly vulnerable to landslides. Geologists say that the earthquake revealed that many mountain towns, like Beichuan's county seat, were in places that are unsafe for habitation.
While buildings can be strengthened to resist the shaking from an earthquake, such fortifications can't protect against tons of falling rock.
Government officials are now pledging that safety will be the top consideration in finding locations for resettlement. Towns won't be rebuilt along the fault line that produced the latest quake, or in places at risk of more geological disasters.
'There just aren't many places, so the problem is very acute,' says Huang Runqiu, director of the National Laboratory of Geohazards Prevention in Chengdu and one of the geologists evaluating possible relocation sites. He hopes that land can be conserved by resettling villagers into fewer and more densely populated towns.
Qi Ji, a vice minister of housing and construction, said last week in Beijing that the government will solicit public opinion before finalizing plans for the permanent relocation of towns.
Teams of geologists are now evaluating the area to find safe and suitable locations, and hope to issue their initial recommendations by the end of the month.
Dr. Huang says an additional evaluation of geological risks, as well as planning for the new towns, means construction is likely to start at the beginning of next year.
Until then, the homeless will be housed in thousands of units of barrack-like temporary housing being thrown up in and around Beichuan county.
Construction teams are working in shifts around the clock in hopes of having them ready for habitation before August.
China's state-run media reported that experts have recommended that Beichuan's county seat, home to about 13,000 people before the earthquake, be relocated 22 miles away to place called Bandengqiao in a nearby county. Mr. Song, Beichuan's party secretary, called Bandengqiao a 'rather ideal' location, but said it was only one of the sites being considered.
Bandengqiao is largely flat, which could be reassuring to traumatized earthquake survivors like Li Yulan, a 37-year-old mother of two from Chengjiaba, a town in Beichuan.
'We just want to go to a place where there are no mountains and no landslides,' Ms. Li says. Geologists had already deemed her home town to be one of the places unlikely to be rebuilt, and Tuesday's flooding appeared to seal its fate.
But a relocation plan driven by safety and economic concerns has already come under attack for neglecting the culture of ethnic Qiang like Ms. Li. The small population of Qiang are influenced by both Tibetan and Han Chinese culture, but retain a distinct identity, including their own polytheistic religion.
Dong Renwei, the head of the Association of Sichuan Science Writers, who has studied the Qiang, says moving the people away from their historical homeland could be devastating.
'The Qiang were badly hit by the earthquake, but they can survive that,' Mr. Dong says. 'But if they're moved it could destroy their culture.'