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2016-07-23 08:37:02

At least 25 people have died with another 13 still missing after flood waters broke through dikes near Xingtai City, in the northern Chinese province of Hebei in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The flood struck without warning as Dongchuankou reservoir reached capacity and burst its banks, flowing into the nearby Qili River which runs to the south of Xingtai City. The Qili then burst through dikes, in the process flooding 12 villages in the area.  

Two of the worst hit areas, Daxian Village and Dongwang Township, sit to the east of Xingtai. The flood struck suddenly, taking the residents by surprise while most of them were sleeping. Witnesses report that the water level rose rapidly, giving villagers little time to react. 

Heavy rainfall in Hebei since Monday has left many areas under water, with the province-wide death toll standing at 114 people, with 111 others reported missing. 

News of the Xingtai disaster did not spread widely until Friday afternoon, when a video showing Wang Qingfei, deputy secretary of the economic development zone that Daxian belongs to, kneeling in front of angry villagers spread across social media.

In the video a villager asks Wang, “Do you know how many people died?” Wang nods but provides no answer.

By Friday more than two days had passed since the disaster with no sign of any relief effort. It was not until 7 p.m. on Friday that Xingtai authorities made an official announcement about the number of casualties on microblogging platform Weibo, saying that there were 9 dead and 11 missing as of 11 a.m. on Friday.

The Qili River narrows significantly at Daxian, and locals accuse the authorities of poor maintenance of the river, and of pipeline construction on its banks which they say has led to limitations in the rivers flood control capacity.

Authorities in Xingtai say that Dongchuankou reservoir is an open reservoir, meaning there are no water flow controls in place. When the reservoir reaches capacity, water flows out automatically. “The dam isn’t designed for controlling water release,” Zhang Yinglin, a hydroelectric expert in Xingtai told Xinhua, according to a report by Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper. Because of this, authorities claim nothing could have been done to prevent the disaster.

At a press conference earlier today, deputy mayor of Xingtai, Qiu Wenshuang, said that he didn’t believe the disaster was caused by negligence. Qiu said there are two flows into the Qili River: One is Dongchuankou reservoir in the upper reaches which has no water-release gate, the other is from the mountains to the west of Xingtai. Qiu maintained that the disaster was a result of water in both these areas reaching high levels at the same time.

On Tuesday, the Flood Control and Drought Relief Office of Hebei sent advance warnings to areas that were downstream of other dams, urging people to move to safe areas before midnight on Wednesday. Residents of Daxian Village say that they received no such warning ahead of the flood. 

As of Saturday morning, Hebei provincial government had sent a team to investigate whether or not the flood prevention controls in the area were suffcient. The team will also decide whether the local authorities gave enough warning ahead of the flood, and look into claims that local officials tried to cover up the number of casualties that died from the disaster.

(Header image: A road is severely damaged after severe floods swept this area of Daxian Village in Xingtai  County, Hebei province, July 23, 2016. Caixin/VCG)