Insights and Analysis

From China: Six Months after the Earthquake

December 3, 2008

By Bulbul Gupta

Six months ago, a major earthquake struck central China, leaving nearly 88,000 people dead or missing, injuring hundreds of thousands, and leaving over five million homeless. The quake, with a magnitude of 8.0, was centered in Wenchuan County in Sichuan Province, and was felt as far away as Beijing, Bangkok, and Hanoi. In the days and weeks afterwards, Asia Foundation staff worked together to share program ideas and identify main areas to focus relief efforts on urgent and medium-term needs primarily in Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

Flattened homes in front of the Yingfeng Chemical Factory, which also had a large ammonia leak after the earthquake

Flattened homes in front of the Yingfeng Chemical Factory, which also had a large ammonia leak after the earthquake

Drawing on lessons learned from experiences following the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, Foundation staff in China tapped into their networks to better understand the needs in the affected region and better tailor recovery efforts.  The Foundation has received over $480,000 so far from donors through Give2Asia (Give2Asia is an independent nonprofit organization founded by The Asia Foundation to promote philanthropy in Asia), in support of three projects that complement larger government and private relief efforts.

Rural Participation in Community Recovery in Sichuan:

Although the Chinese government has earmarked U.S. $146 billion for rehabilitation and reconstruction for earthquake-affected communities for the first three years, customizing relief efforts to meet specific local needs is extremely challenging. Determining these needs with input from the local community is critical to this process, but Sichuan residents often have limited opportunities to participate in local decision about how relief aid will be used.

Six months after the earthquake, government and donor efforts have addressed many of the immediate needs of food, shelter, and safety, and communities in the area, but tremendous work remains in medium-to-long term plans for recovery. With support from many private individuals through Give2Asia’s China Earthquake Recovery Fund, The Asia Foundation is supporting this effort with the Rural Economics Research Institute at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences in two local communities. There, the Foundation and the Institute will first undertake a community survey to assess needs. Then, using the survey results, they will hold planning workshops with people in the affected areas to come up with practical plans for how to get and best use government relief funds. These activities will also provide a model for other communities facing similar situations.

Helping Women and Families Recover in Maoxian, Sichuan:

Across China, millions of rural villagers migrate thousands of miles from their homes to seek higher wages in factories and businesses located in industrialized cities. Often, it’s the women who stay behind to care for the children and elderly family members that become the pillars of rural communities, while also earning critical supplemental income. Following the earthquake, many of these women became homeless or even more isolated, especially in Maoxian County, which is also home to the Qiang people, a 2,000-year-old ethnic minority in China with a population of only 300,000. The Asia Foundation instituted a pilot project here to support Qiang women.  The project includes counseling for these isolated women and activities that will enable local women’s groups and the Ethnic Women Embroidery Association to take a leading role in community reconstruction and rehabilitation, and to promote long-term economic well-being by expanding opportunities for income generation. The overarching goals include helping to rebuild the social fabric of the Qiang women and their communities, strengthening their mutual-assistance and networking abilities, and enhancing their participation in social life and long-term community development.

Clean Water for Villages in Gansu Province:

Although Sichuan province was more severely devastated by the May 12th earthquake, parts of neighboring Gansu Province were also affected, but have received far less attention from the outside world. Unfortunately, the parts of Gansu province that were hardest hit are also regions that are extremely poor. To provide relief to the area, The Asia Foundation will work with the Fuping Development Institute, the Gansu Province Poverty Alleviation Office, and the local Bureau of Water Resources to improve access to clean water for about 2,590 families in 13 villages of Longnan County, in Gansu.

Prior to the earthquake, of the 13 villages, four had water supply pipelines and nine had roof-top rainwater harvesting systems in combination with water cellars. Many of the houses collapsed during the earthquake, destroying the rainwater collection systems and water cellars. Water cellars for 800 families were damaged, with 100 of them completely destroyed. Those 100 families are now using small ponds in the ground to store water, and many local villagers are currently relying on plastic containers and plastic bags to collect water from rainfall for drinking purposes. With the quality of drinking water in the region failing to meet Chinese and international drinking water standards even before the earthquake, water quality is now even worse and in urgent need of improvement.

Government efforts are now beginning to restore water supply systems and rebuild houses with roof rainwater harvesting systems and water cellars, but they will take many more months to complete. In the meantime, most water cellars have not yet been repaired. In many areas, water safety issues remain, as high concentrations of nitrates have been discovered in the water. It is likely some water supplies are contaminated due to mining activities, because the earthquake made the groundwater more vulnerable to contamination. The Foundation’s project will focus on helping locals find ways to manage existing and new water infrastructure, provide treatment measures to ensure clean drinking water, and build capability for them to manage their drinking water issues alongside the overall earthquake recovery process in their districts.

The Foundation was in a good position to help out after this enormous, heart-wrenching natural disaster, with its strong relationships with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (the government agency responsible for disaster relief), its long presence on the ground in Asia, with extensive public-private partnership efforts focused on disaster preparedness and management, and extensive local networks.  The Foundation is continuing to work on disaster preparedness programs to help other communities be better prepared for such situations in the future.

You can contribute to relief efforts through Give2Asia.

Volunteers distribute water to villagers

Volunteers distribute water to villagers

Bulbul Gupta is the Grants Manager for Programs and Private Philanthropy at The Asia Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]

Related locations: China
Related topics: International Development


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Mailing Address:
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223

The Latest Across Asia

2022 Impact Report

Thank you for powering The Asia Foundation’s mission to improve lives and expand opportunities.