Four years on: What China got right when rebuilding after the Sichuan earthquake

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The devastation from the Sichuan earthquake was immense; the recovery, impressive.

Four years ago on May 12, 2008, the world was stunned by the news of an 8-magnitude massive earthquake that struck Wenchuan of Sichuan Province and affected, in total, ten provinces in Southwestern China.  

Official estimates put the number of affected people at 46.25 million, with some 69,227 deceased, 17,923 missing and 15 million displaced from their homes.

During our visits to those areas back then, we witnessed how water, electricity and gas systems were largely paralyzed and telecommunications and transportation severely disrupted.  General infrastructure was also overwhelmingly damaged, with approximately 7,444 schools and 11,028 medical institutions and 34,125 kilometers of highways devastated, in a region that was already among the poorest and most vulnerable in China.

The overall direct economic loss was estimated to be RMB 845 billion (US$ 130 billion).

In face of these severe human, material, economic and environmental damages, the Chinese government immediately set in motion a comprehensive relief and reconstruction program.

Our team worked on the World Bank-financed Wenchuan Earthquake Recovery Project. We recently concluded a review of China’s national master plan for rehabilitation and reconstruction of the earthquake and six sector-specific recovery plans. This includes lessons learnt from the Chinese and international experiences in earthquake reconstruction and policy recommendations to further improve reconstruction efforts. 

Having witnessed the immensity of the tasks accomplished, we’d like to share some of our key findings:

One of the most astonishing aspects is the speed and efficiency with which the Chinese government was able to mobilize government agencies, the private sector and the population at large. 

Soon after the disaster, the planning process for recovery and reconstruction efforts took off, including the optimization of the urban layout during reconstruction, the restoration and reconstruction of rural production and living facilities, the provision of health services; the creation of cultural, sporting and other public service facilities; the strengthening of disaster prevention and relief systems; the restoration of the ecological landscape; and the provision of psychological support of the affected population.

Most importantly, the government was able to capitalize on the opportunities presented by this disaster to plan the reconstruction in a way that allowed the affected provinces to move forward.

Another interesting part of the reconstruction was the way other provincial governments and the population at large got involved.

Overall, about 41,130 projects for reconstruction and rehabilitation were undertaken, 99% of which were completed within a two year period. This was largely made possible thanks to the innovative measures such as a partnership scheme set up among provinces – basically, the Central Government paired up each affected county with an unaffected province, which then worked to provide financial and technical assistance for reconstruction and restoration.

These provinces in turn worked to raise awareness among their population and industrial sectors of the needs of the affected provinces they were assisting.  In this way, civil society was also massively mobilized. In total, over RMB 949 billion (US$ 146 billion) were invested for reconstruction.

Furthermore, the earthquake provided an opportunity to reconstruct all public-service facilities in the affected areas with high seismic standards and modern equipment. Some RMB108 billion (US$ 16.6 billion) were spent in these facilities, including investments in medical and sanitation facilities and social management. Schools and hospitals are now fully restored and reconstructed, in addition to social welfare houses, elderly homes, community service centers, village activity centers, etc.

We are continuing to strengthen our partnership with the Chinese government on disaster and risk mitigation and management, by disseminating China’s great experience and expertise in disaster preparedness and relief to other countries in the region and worldwide.

This Monday (May 14), the China Emergency Relief Training Center (CERT) in Beijing, with support from GFDRR, through the World Bank, is offering the one-week Emergency Response and Relief Training to selected rescue teams from Indonesia, a country that has also been hit hard by natural disasters. This training is designed to prepare medical and rescue teams to respond to emergencies more effectively in future.

We hope that this will be the first of a series of such trainings through which China can share some of the know-how it has acquired from previous disasters such as the 08 earthquake.

Here, watch a video that records a training program on disaster preparedness for primary and second school teachers from the Sichuan earthquake-struck areas:


The details are also available in this story. And here are some previous blog posts about this earthquake.


Paul Procee

Program Leader, World Bank, Brazil

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