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Red Cross races to help typhoon survivors in East Asia

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By Francis Markus, IFRC, in Wenzhou, China and Patrick Fuller, IFRC, in Kuala Lumpur

More than 100 people have died and over 200 remain stranded as rescue workers in Taiwan struggle to reach communities cut off by floods and mudslides.

Heavy rains arriving in the wake of Typhoon Morakot have caused the worst flooding in decades in parts of Taiwan's central and southern districts, and this is hampering the rescue effort. Military helicopters have evacuated almost 14,000 people from the worst-affected areas, while food and relief items have been airdropped to other communities.

The Taiwan Red Cross Organization (TRCO) has been active in all of the six affected areas. Three search and rescue teams with more than 100 volunteers have been working with the fire department to reach villages that have been cut off. TRCO has also been supporting the airdrops and volunteers have been distributing relief supplies to evacuation centres set up by the local authorities.

Meanwhile, the Guangdong, Shanghai and Fujian branches of the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC) have each sent 1 million Yuan (157,000 Swiss francs) in donations to the TRCO to help those affected.

Scale of disaster

As the scale of the disaster continues to unfold in Taiwan, the general situation in coastal provinces of mainland China is improving.

In the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, everybody is racing to get their lives back on track as best they can. The flooding that followed Morakot destroyed or damaged an estimated 10,000 homes causing damage estimated at 7 billion Yuan (more than one billion Swiss francs).

From women's and children's clothes turning the railings on the edge of the highway into a blaze of colour, to Chinese medicinal herbs, strips of pigskin leather and furniture - everything is spread out in the sunshine to dry.

As the clean up continues, the disaster is prompting reflection about the underlying environmental factors and what can be done to square the circle between the region's rapid development and the hazards it faces.

Bad flooding

"We get plenty of typhoons here and if they didn't come, we'd wonder what was wrong, but we haven't seen one that's caused such bad flooding in at least 15 years," says Cai Zhangqing, who heads the Red Cross branch in Wenzhou. He and his volunteers and staff had to reach many of the flood stricken areas by boat to deliver relief supplies of rice, instant noodles, quilts and disinfectant.

About 80 km south of Wenzhou, towards the neighbouring province of Fujian, which was where Morakot made landfall, the town of Shui Tou has a name, meaning 'Water Head', that seems all too appropriate, since it was under three metres of water for the earlier portion of this week.

Pointing at an orange fluorescent life jacket hanging on the banister, a man of around 40 who lives around the corner says, "I used that to go chasing after my pigs which had escaped in the flood," yet he only managed to recapture about half of his 60 pigs.

Well prepared

People in this region are relatively well prepared for the normal intensity of the typhoons, which strike them throughout the summer and autumn months.

"When typhoons come, I normally expect flooding to come up to there," says shopkeeper Deng Mingyue, pointing at a spot that looks alarmingly high on the wall, "so I store the goods on higher shelves, but this time it was at least half a metre higher than we've experienced before."

The mass evacuation of some 1.5 million people across several provinces helped to keep fatalities close to zero.

"The government deserves credit for this approach, which is really people-centred, but at the same time there is still a fundamental issue to be tackled - understanding and addressing the impact that growing urbanization and industrialization may be having on disasters," says Gao Xiang, executive vice president of the Zhejiang provincial Red Cross.

Nowhere to go

Whereas once the rains that coursed down from the mountains had an extensive river system to disperse into naturally, the increasing spread of concrete, tarmac and brick, has left the water with nowhere to go.

Certain kinds of agricultural business may also be having a negative impact. "In parts of the province, there are lots of trees being planted in the hills to be sold to the cities for landscaping and when they are uprooted, the soil goes with them," explains Gao.

"Of course more trees are planted in their place, but each time, the quality of the soil is denuded which can contribute to causing mudslides."