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Beginning the recovery assistance mission to China's earthquake-affected area

Mara Warwick's picture

At the 700 year-old Er'wang Temple in the Dujiangyan World Heritage Site.
Six weeks and one day since the massive 8.0 earthquake hit Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province and I am participating in the first World Bank mission to the earthquake-affected area.  In the last six weeks the relief effort conducted by the Chinese government and citizens has been widely applauded.  Now the attention is turning to the future – damage assessments are under way and reconstruction planning has commenced.  The purpose of our mission this week is to better understand the impact of the earthquake and to see how the Bank could best provide assistance during the reconstruction period.
   
Today’s site visit took us to Dujiangyan, a city that I first visited almost exactly 12 years ago.  The city sits beside one of China’s greatest engineering achievements – the Dujiangyan Irrigation System – a massive water diversion project built in the 3rd Century BC on a scale that only the Chinese, ancient and modern, could conceive. 

For 2,300 years the scheme has diverted part of the Minjiang River into the Chengdu plain, turning it from a dry, dusty wasteland into the “rice bowl” of China – one of the most important food producing, prosperous and now, heavily populated, areas of the country.  Today, Dujiangyan is not just important as a statement of China’s engineering past – it is the heart and soul of this area and its people.

Dujiangyan – the city and the heritage – was hit hard by the earthquake.  The city is now a mix of collapsed and abandoned buildings, boarded up and cordoned off, in amongst buildings that appear to be functioning normally.  Rows of tents fill every available open space, especially on roundabouts, street corners and along riverside parks.  Where buildings are unsafe, offices and shops are operating inside tents – and we were all struck by how the life of the city seems to go on even under these circumstances. 

We visited one of the first temporary housing areas just completed – 2,000 housing units, each smaller than a hotel room, made of prefabricated panels set on a huge concrete slab.  Communal toilets, showers, a recreation room (even an internet café with a sign but currently no equipment), a clinic, school….many facilities are already there.  Certainly this must be better than living in a tent, but I wonder what it will be like when the temperature soars above 100 degrees Fahrenheit next month. 

The officials guiding us did not want to guess how long people will be living in there, but I was struck by just how many had already tried to make it feel like home, with rows of potted flowers outside their doors.  Nearly 300,000 people in Dujiangyan alone (40% of its population) are currently displaced and will soon be living in temporary communities such as this one.

The Bank has supported several cultural heritage protection projects in China, so we visited the Dujiangyan World Heritage Site.  The Er’wang Temple, built around 700 years ago by the people of Dujiangyan to honor the engineers who constructed the irrigation scheme, is completely devastated.  As we picked our way over piles of rubble, millions of roof tiles and many huge boulders that had been flung from the neighboring hillside into the temple walls, we hurried past the precariously leaning temple columns with just enough time to realize that, miraculously, all of the statues that honor those who built that magnificent irrigation scheme were still standing, calmly looking out through the devastation to the river below.  The collapse of the temple complex in Dujiangyan was heartbreaking – I hope that this may be an area that we can help, so that the pride of Dujiangyan and the people of this fertile region is once again restored.