After the Sichuan earthquake: Where will people live?

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ImageApproaching the mountains from the Chengdu plain along the main road to Beichuan County, red banners with large white characters expressing support for the earthquake victims and thanks to the rescuers, are strung across the road, as if creating an arbor for all to pass through.  Driving up this road doesn’t feel safe, even now, six weeks after the quake.  The steep slopes of the mountains on both sides of our vehicle loom above us.  Huge boulders are scattered everywhere on the mountain sides, landslides are all around, and I cannot stop thinking about the description given by a group of tourists of the moment the quake struck: “the mountains exploded as if hit by a megaton bomb”. 

Leigu Township is utterly devastated.  None of our team have ever seen anything like it.   Most of the town is rubble and the buildings that remain will have to be brought down; everything will have to be built again.  The smell of decomposing trash is in the air as we walk through the eerie quiet of ruined streets.  Photos do not do justice to this experience because they cannot express what it feels like to have such devastation all around.  If this were a war zone, I could believe it, but to think that this happened through a force of nature, and all this damage occurred in 80 seconds, is almost beyond my imagination.

My overwhelming impression is of devastated housing.
Washing clothes in the camp.
 Carrying a few valuables
dug from the rubble.
My overwhelming impression of our trip today to Mianyang City and then up into the mountains to Leigu Township, is of devastated housing.  Miles and miles of collapsed farmhouses and townships – and on this trip we saw only the smallest fraction of the damage caused by this quake.  Thousands – maybe millions – are currently living in relief tents or make-shift shanties made out of red, white and blue striped plastic – the type that shopping bags are made from.  In Leigu Township the camp is well organized with running water and toilet blocks, although these are simple drop toilets and sanitation must be a huge problem, especially when it rains and the camp turns to mud (video). 

But despite this, I am again amazed at the capacity of the Chinese to get organized - temporary housing like the site we saw yesterday in Dujiangyan is mushrooming everywhere and within weeks there will be thousands of people living in prefabricated temporary units.  But that still leaves the problem of permanent housing and the even bigger problem of deciding where to rebuild.  Will the people who have lived amongst the majesty of these enormous mountains have to come down to the plains just to be safe?  What kind of social impact would such a transition have on these people already traumatized by what they have witnessed?

In both Dujiangyan and Mianyang, local officials have started planning the housing for displaced urban residents, but they said to us that they still do not have a clear idea how to help the massive number of rural residents rebuild their own houses in locations and to standards that would help them withstand the next disaster.  There is a lot of good practice in the world on post-disaster housing reconstruction, such as from the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and one of our jobs in the coming weeks will be to help bring this global knowledge to the Chinese government as they embark on this enormous task.


Mara Warwick

World Bank Country Director for China and Mongolia, and Director for Korea

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