Notes from the Field

Lessons from China’s Wenchuan Earthquake

May 11, 2011

As the world embraces and supports Japan as it slowly recovers from the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, for many Chinese, memories of its own 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that left more than 80,000 people dead or missing and some 15 million homeless, are still raw. In the lead-up to the third anniversary of the China earthquake that struck Sichuan Province, reporters and TV crews from around the country have converged on the worst-hit cities and counties. A quick glimpse of the country’s major web portals and TV news programs reveals a palpable sense of pride about the significant progress of recovery, only tempered by remembrance of loss.

Sichuan earthquake damage

Although the devastating Wenchuan earthquake left more than 80,000 people dead or missing and some 15 million homeless, swift recovery efforts are celebrated on the third anniversary of the earthquake.

Just four months after 2008 the earthquake, the State Council issued the State Overall Planning for Post-Wenchuan Earthquake Restoration and Reconstruction, setting a goal of completing major recovery within three years. Many Chinese have attributed the swift, effective recovery to China’s strong central government, which deftly assigned various provinces and cities across China to assist in the reconstruction in designated rural and urban areas hit by the earthquake. The progress in reconstruction is an impressive achievement, but there has been something else of equal significance, and that is to make good use of the experiences and lessons learned from the recovery to better prepare for future disasters.

In April, over 360 government officials from local civil affairs bureaus of 11 provinces and municipalities participated in a two-day training jointly organized by The Asia Foundation and China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. Utilizing mostly case studies from rural housing recovery in Sichuan, participants discussed post-disaster rural housing rehabilitation issues, including regulations, damage assessment of rural homes, rebuilding funds management, rural planning, engaging rural residents, and quality-control of rebuilt rural homes. The training also presented experiences and lessons from post-disaster rehabilitation from India, Indonesia, and Haiti. The aim was to help participating government officials who are already familiar with immediate relief efforts following natural disasters to manage the complex rural rehabilitation process. This will better ensure a long-term and sustainable recovery of disaster-affected communities. This was the first time that the Ministry of Civil Affairs conducted such a systematic training for its local officials. One participant, Ms. Chen from Chongqing Civil Affairs Bureau, said that the training helped her better understand the overall process of organizing rural home rebuilding. In particular, the cases from Sichuan and other countries provided her with fresh perspectives on the roles of and dynamics among various stakeholders of the recovery process.

Earthquake recover training in China

A reconstruction expert trains villagers in Tongjiang County on how to build earthquake-resistant confined masonry homes at a training organized through the USAID/OFDA-supported Asia Foundation program.

The training is part of the Foundation’s Earthquake Recovery and Rural Housing Rehabilitation in Sichuan project, launched in September 2008 with funding from the United States Agency for International Development’s U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Since then, our project team has worked with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Sichuan University College of Architecture and Environment, and Build Change to research and develop earthquake-resistant rural home models that are culturally appropriate and affordable for the most disadvantaged rural families. To document the best practices from rural Sichuan, we developed a manual on the safe reconstruction of rural homes and an accompanying DVD with five chapters on management of rural rebuilding, site selection, timber homes, confined masonry homes, and light steel homes. We also helped rural homeowners, builders, village leaders, and students in remote areas learn to build stronger, more disaster-resistant homes.

The rural rebuilding in Sichuan moved faster than expected due to the strong government support: official statistics indicate that over 1.25 million rural homes were rebuilt by February 2010, accounting for 99.26 percent of the collapsed rural homes. The Foundation and its partners targeted the more remote areas outside the designated worst-hit areas. In these mountainous areas, accessing technical support was more challenging as rural households are scattered. For example, in Huaxi Township of Tongjiang City, which is an eight-hour drive from Sichuan’s capital of Chengdu, technical trainers from the project usually had to walk for more than a couple hours from the township seat with projectors, laptops and posters to visit villagers. In the last quarter of 2010 alone, the project team visited 135 homes under construction a total of 532 times and provided practical suggestions to these homeowners to incorporate safe building practices.

The second component to the Foundation’s project on earthquake recovery was dedicated to disaster risk reduction education in elementary and secondary schools in Chengdu of Sichuan Province. The Asia Foundation worked closely with the Academy of Disaster Reduction and Emergency Management and Chengdu Education Foundation, to train more than 100 teachers on how to better disseminate disaster risk reduction knowledge and skills to students and to develop teacher and student handbooks that were then distributed to over 1,140 elementary and middle schools, reaching over 1.5 million students. We also helped train over 50 education officials and school administrators on improving risk reduction in schools and their neighboring communities.

As the media buzz around the success of the recovery and reconstruction soon fades from top domestic headlines, the impact from these long-term disaster risk reduction practices and better post-disaster rural rehabilitation management will continue to be felt by both communities affected by the earthquake and those in other disaster-prone areas in China.

Chen Liuting is The Asia Foundation’s program associate for community development in Beijing. She can be reached at chenliuting@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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