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China earthquake: Death toll crosses 55,000

By Raghavendra in Beijing
Last updated on: May 23, 2008 11:33 IST
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The death toll in the devastating earthquake in southwest China on Friday crossed 55,000 with nearly 25,000 people still missing, as Beijing, struggling to provide shelter to lakhs of survivors, braced for a new threat from the swelling 'quake lakes' in the already battered region.

 In the disaster zone on his second trip, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said the focus of relief work has shifted from rescuing lives to rehabilitating the quake victims and local society. "It will be a harder and long-term task," he said in Beichuan county, one of the worst-hit by the quake, which measured 8 on the Richter Scale.

Sichuan Vice Governor Li Chengyun said rescuing survivors still remained the top priority 11 days after the quake rocked the province, where 55,239 have been confirmed dead and 24,949 people were still missing. He said the authorities had set a three-year goal to rebuilt the towns, flattened by the quake in the worst hit Sinchuan province, where the quake has left 281,066 people injured.

'Quake lakes', which were formed after landslides and mudflows blocked rivers, continued to pose a threat to several villages in the temblor-battered areas.

Of the 34 such lakes in Sichuan province, eight hold more than three million cubic metres of water, adding potential danger for the already quake-shattered people. To compound matters, the Chinese National Meteorological Centre has forecast that rains might sweep the quake-hit south-west regions next week and further push up the water level in the lakes. Authorities are making efforts to evacuate people living downstream of the lakes, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Li said more than 200,000 volunteers, including many providing counseling services, were working in the quake-battered areas. No miracle rescue was reported today as hopes of finding survivors under tens of thousands of collapsed buildings of schools, houses, hospitals and factories had tapered off with authorities now focusing on dealing with the dead bodies and injured and providing immediate shelter to millions.

China continued to scramble for tents and said there was a 'big gap' in the supply and the actual requirement.

Foreign countries and organisations had provided 1,50,000 tents to quake-battered areas. Reflecting the gravity of the problem, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited two tent manufacturers in Zhejiang province on Thursday, urging them to produce as many as possible. "Currently, we are in urgent need of tents.... Because many victims are lacking shelter," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Thursday.

More than 3.3 million were needed but 400,000 had been sent so far. "It is a big gap. We welcome international assistance in this regard," he said.

 China said on Wednesday that it would slash government spending by five per cent this year and pledged US$ 10.14 billion for a fund for reconstruction in the earthquake-devastated region. With increasing number of deaths and the coming summer, the quake-battered areas faced pressure to prevent epidemics that has brought in armies of medical workers into the disaster zone, though no epidemic outbreak has been reported yet.

Medical teams from Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan have been allowed to work in the quake-hit areas. Qin said many countries had offered to send their medical teams."We will, according to the real situation and receiving capacity of the affected areas, consider their kind offers," he said.

Authorities are also going all out to prevent outbreak of epidemics and Sichuan province remained on high alert for rodent diseases, Xinhua said. Monitoring locations and a daily reporting system had been put in place, it said. Thirty three roads in Sichuan province still remained blocked and workers were racing against time to repair the damaged ones, Li said.

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Raghavendra in Beijing
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