15-21 May 2015 #758

Lessons from Sichuan

Sichuan Province turned the earthquake crisis into an opportunity to invest $150 billion for reconstruction, rehabilitation and relocation
Kunda Dixit

CHENGDU – The epicentre of the 7.9 magnitude earthquake was 80km to the north-west, and everything swayed in the capital. Some older buildings crumbled. The tremors were felt 1,000km away in neighbouring countries. The airport was closed for a day, and then became the staging area for a massive relief operation. Highways were blocked by landslides, delaying emergency rescue and relief to the mountain villages. Up to 80 per cent of the buildings in poorer rural areas near the epicentre were destroyed, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was severely damaged. Strong aftershocks, some above 6 magnitude, kept hitting the area for weeks afterwards.

Sound familiar? That isn’t a description of the 25 April Nepal Earthquake, but the one that struck China’s Sichuan Province exactly seven years ago this week at 11:30 AM on 12 May 2008. The earthquake hit scattered communities in a remote part of China that was largely untouched by the country’s economic boom, and killed about 100,000 people, injuring nearly 400,000. An estimated 7 million people were left homeless.

BURIED: Sichuan 12 May 2008

The most tragic part of the Sichuan earthquake was that it struck during school hours killing thousands of teachers and students. Some 7,000 schools were destroyed, killing 5,500 children. In school after school in Wenchuan and Beichuan, teachers and students were crushed or trapped under shoddily-built school buildings. At least 1,700 were killed in just one school in Mianyang. The loss of children was so serious in a country with a strict one-child policy that the government made an exception for many parents allowing them to reverse their vasectomies.

Even though some 25,000 classrooms were destroyed in Nepal on 25 April, a similar catastrophe was averted here only because the earthquake struck on a Saturday. Still, about 1 million school-going children will be affected and may be attending classes in Temporary Learning Centres from next month.

China’s emergency response was led by Premier Wen Jiabao himself, and was internationally praised for its prompt deployment. More than 3,000 people were rescued from the rubble in the immediate aftermath, and 100 helicopters were used in search, rescue and relief. Many who took part in the Sichuan relief work were part of the China International Rescue Team that was dispatched to Kathmandu on 28 April.

“We learnt many lessons from the earthquake, and some of them will be relevant for Nepal as it tries to deal with the aftermath of its disaster,” said Dai Yonghong of Sichuan University Institute of South Asian Studies. “The top agenda now should be economic transformation to build a beautiful Nepal in the future again.”

Nepal 25 April 2015

Indeed, China’s central government and Sichuan Province turned the crisis into an opportunity to invest $150 billion for reconstruction, rehabilitation and relocation of some townships like Wenchuan and Beichuan. An investigation into collapsed schools showed that contractors cut corners and did not follow building codes. A unique aspect of the reconstruction was that Chinese cities on the eastern seaboard were encouraged to ‘adopt’ individual towns in Sichuan affected by the earthquake and invest in their reconstruction. For example, Guangzhou adopted Wenchuan. “We unleashed the power of the whole country to help the reconstruction,” said Zhihui Song of Sichuan University.

At a India-China-Nepal trilateral cooperation conference hosted by the China West Normal University this weekend in Nanchong, the discussions were dominated by how Nepal’s neighbours could help in Nepal’s reconstruction. Participants felt that India’s advantage was its proximity, and China would help with its experience from Sichuan in rebuilding homes, with construction equipment and financial assistance.

Rupak Sapkota, who is doing a PhD at Beijing’s Renming University, said China should “think big” in Nepal’s hour of need. “Post-earthquake reconstruction of Nepal could be the first big project that the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could be involved with in the region,” he said.

Read also:

Homeless in Nepal, Editorial

A concrete future, Sonia Awale

The four-fold path, Pradumna B Rana

Back to school, Sahina Shrestha

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