At least 14 people have died in the last four days and eight are missing as heavy rains hit southern China, state-run Xinhua news agency reported Sunday, citing the flood agency.

Some 9,000 houses have collapsed and crops have been damaged on 710,000 hectares of farmland, according to the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. Losses from the flooding so far are an estimated 9.1 billion yuan (1.37 billion dollars).

Rainfall has been 20 per cent higher than in previous years along the Yangtze, with people living by the river facing the prospect of floods, and barriers and control efforts under threat, said Chen Guiya, Yangtze River Water Resources Committee deputy director.

Some 120,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes in the provinces of Hubei, Jaingsu and Zhejiang.

Chen warned that the situation was critical.

"Flood control facilities, especially main dykes, along the Yangtze River have been reinforced since 1998 to stand severe floods, but rising water levels have damaged many riverbanks in the middle and lower reaches of Yangtze, posing great danger," Xinhua quoted Chen as saying.

The national meteorological authority renewed its high alert for heavy rain in the southern and south-western regions, with two new waves of rainstorms expected in the next 10 days.

The first typhoon of the year was expected to hit the east coast next week.

The Yangtze River saw its first flood peak on Friday. The Three Gorges Dam increased water discharge to allow the peak to pass through. The second flood peak was expected to move along the river on Sunday, Xinhua reported.

Thousands of soldiers, firemen and relief workers are working around the clock to shore up flood control along the river.

Troops in Hubei used a ton of explosives to open a sluice channel for an overflowing reservoir near several key railway and highway routes on Saturday.

A dam breach of the reservoir could put about 70,000 lives in danger, Xinhua quoted local officials saying.

In a separate incident not on the river, eight people died when a factory wall measuring over 2 metres tall collapsed in heavy rain in the city of Wuhan, burying pedestrians underneath it.

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