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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

900,000 Battle Floods in China

CHANGSHA, China -- An army of Chinese soldiers and civilians raced against time Thursday to stop a giant lake bursting its banks and sending floodwaters across an area that is home to millions.

About 900,000 people in southern Hunan province piled up sandbags as a crest of floodwater from days of incessant rain surged down the Yangtze River toward the dangerously swollen Dongting Lake, local officials said.

The flood surge is expected to reach the lake -- where waters are rising daily -- by Sunday. If Dongting, about the size of Luxembourg, bursts its banks, a wall of water could wash across fertile farmlands where 10 million people live. Two major cities could also be flooded.

People lined the banks of the lake and the four swollen rivers that feed it after the provincial government declared a flood emergency for the first time since 1998, the officials said.

"They have surrounded the lake," said a flood control official in the provincial capital, Changsha, about 100 kilometers from the lake.

"There are 900,000 people fighting the floods. There are people everywhere."

Television pictures showed people piling sandbags around the lake, a major overspill for the Yangtze River.

If Dongting bursts its banks, floods could also spread to Wuhan, which has a population of more than 7 million, and Changsha, home to 6 million people, state media said.

In Changsha, about 3,000 people evacuated an island in the middle of the Xiangjiang River, one of the four feeding Dongting. The island was almost completely submerged.

Soldiers ferried people to higher ground in wooden boats while others waded through water more than waist deep in their homes and some took refuge on second-story patios.

The worst is still to come, with the highest waters of the Yangtze still surging through neighboring Hubei province and not due to reach Dongting until the weekend, another flood control official said.

Water levels could match those in 1998, when the worst floods in decades killed more than 4,000 people after the Yangtze and Dongting burst their banks, the China Daily said. In that year, the lake reached its historical high of 35.9 meters.

Dongting rose to 34.45 meters Thursday, almost 2.5 meters above the flood warning level, local officials said.

The lake is one of two major catchments on the Yangtze, which floods almost every year as it meets a network of tributaries and lakes in the major rice-producing provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi.

Dongting, which covers about 2,700 square kilometers, is China's second-largest freshwater lake and is about 900 kilometers west of Shanghai.