Slowly but surely, life returns in earthquake-affected China

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Much that remains of Beichuan, China from the earthquake, is buried – reclaimed by the environment.
It has been seven months since the Wenchuan Earthquake devastated Sichuan Province and I have just returned from my seventh trip to the quake zone, this time with World Bank President Robert Zoellick. Yesterday we traveled three hours by bus from Chengdu to Beichuan, the town that was most severely affected during the earthquake. On May 12, the day of the 7.8- magnitude earthquake, buildings collapsed and mountains came crashing down, burying thousands. The ground literally opened up and swallowed people, cars and buildings. A staggering 12,000 people died in Beichuan on that day – about 74 percent of the town's population. More than a thousand children died at the high school alone.

Yesterday, standing on the road above the town looking down at the remains, it was hard to believe the extent to which the town has already been reclaimed by the environment. Much of the rubble is buried by meters and meters of mud that slid down the towering mountain slopes during the summer rains or has washed out of Tangjiashan, the massive barrier lake that formed just upstream of Beichuan.

Standing there, I could imagine that fifteen years from now this place will no longer exist at all, except as a memory. The mountains will have reclaimed it as their own.

Beichuan County Governor Jing Dazhong, a local resident of the town before the earthquake, explains to World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick about his experiences during and after the earthquake.
Our trip took on a much more upbeat feel after we left the ruins of Beichuan, returning to the vibrant community of neighboring Leigu Township. We had visited Leigu on our first trip to the area in June, but this time Leigu was hardly recognizable. Where a huge tent city had stood in June, a large, spacious, well-planned transitional town is now located. Thousands live in temporary houses, and there is now even a public square and market place. We visit several places in the town, including the health clinic and elementary school. But the part I enjoyed most was visiting the community center. A "mothers and babies group" was chatting and playing outside the center in the unseasonably warm sunshine. The toddlers constructed wobbly towers of wooden blocks that came crashing down with one small push – unnervingly reminiscent of destruction on a much larger scale just around the corner.

Inside the center, an elderly woman from the Qiang Ethnic Minority was teaching young women traditional embroidery. As embroidery is one of my own hobbies, I was particularly interested in the techniques they were learning, and I chatted with a few of the women to find out more. They said that they were beginners – they had never been interested in embroidery before, but now they needed new job skills. They felt that if they practiced hard enough, they would be able to prepare embroidery pieces at home to sell to the small ethnic clothing factory that had started production in the temporary town. We also visited the factory and watched several young women with treadle sewing machines busily piecing together colorful ethnic costumes decorated with braids and embroidery.

A young woman in Leigu Township sews together colorful ethnic costumes decorated with braids and embroidery.
I know from my own experience that embroidery is a time-consuming task, and it must be very hard to earn a good living from it. Still, it was heartening to see that traditional crafts and techniques are forming the basis for retraining skills and creating jobs in these earthquake-affected communities.

The World Bank's earthquake team has been working very hard over the past few months, helping Sichuan and Gansu Provinces put together a reconstruction project that will be financed by a $710 million IBRD loan. While a lot of the time we spend out in the earthquake-affected areas is dedicated to discussions on financing, technical standards and other project-related issues, we also have the opportunity to observe life beginning to return in the earthquake area, slowly but surely.


Mara Warwick

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

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