China

Chinese farmers worry about the future in the wake of devastating floods

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Originally published
by Francis Markus of the International Federation in Anhui Province, China

Hundreds of millions of people affected by China's floods, including five million evacuated from their homes nationwide, are facing an uncertain future. As the waters subside in some places, attention is now focusing on the tasks ahead, including reconstruction and preparedness work. From the agitated way in which Liu Jihuai jerks his arm back and forth, you can read the worry and uncertainty which the 54-year-old farmer feels about his future as he points towards the pile of rubble that was once his house and the temporary shelter which is now his home.

"For the moment, we're camping out on the roof of a neighbour's house over there," he explains, as he stands bare-chested in the baking heat, which has set in following the worst floods some districts here have seen for at least half a century.

But what exactly happens next is his big anxiety. "We don't know how we're going to find the money to rebuild our house," he says. "And all our fields are still flooded," he adds, with another jerky gesture towards a shimmering expanse of water a couple of hundred metres away.

Helping vulnerable people, like Liu Jihuai, start down the road to recovery is a major priority for the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

"We have come out of the emergency phase, but we still have an awful lot of work to do helping people in evacuation centres move back to their homes, while promoting good hygiene, preventing epidemics and sorting out what happens next for the disaster-affected people," says Chen Yuqin, the head of the Red Cross Society of China's (RCSC) branch in nearby Huainan City.

For the past few weeks, RCSC workers, including many volunteers from the affected communities, have been battling to keep up emergency relief supplies of food, bedding and medicines to the many thousands of families sheltering in tents pitched around schools and other public buildings.

Temperatures brushing 40 degrees Celsius pushed the authorities to shift the population out of tents and into temporary shelter with friends or relatives if possible, or back home once flood waters eased.

Now the focus is swinging round to the future. In addition to a component for relief supplies, an emergency appeal for 9.5 million Swiss francs ($7.7 million USD/€5.7 million) launched late last month by the International Federation also aims to support the reconstruction of housing in the most vulnerable communities, as well as disaster risk reduction work.

Government teams have already been sent out in some areas to assess reconstruction needs. But no announcements have yet been made about how much cash people can expect from the authorities.

In a project last year to help disaster-affected communities in southern China's Hunan province, a Federation grant of 12,000 RMB ($15,000) for building materials to the most vulnerable families supplemented 5,000 RMB ($660) from the government and a 5,000 RMB interest-free bank loan.

The latest appeal includes a target of helping to rebuild 2,000 houses that were destroyed by the recent floods.

"China may be developing rapidly in terms of its economy and GDP, but there are still millions of people living below the poverty level who need the international community's support," says Gu Qinghui, the International Federation's regional disaster management delegate, based in Beijing.

As Anhui and its neighbouring provinces set about repairing the damage and facing the future, it is the farmers who are going to be hardest-hit.

While the water in some of the flooded fields may be pumped out within a few days, still allowing for autumn crops to be planted, in other places it is expected to take weeks for the water to clear, making it too late for planting.

Many farmers have suffered a double blow - not only have they lost their houses and crops, their livestock have either drowned or had to be sold off at rock-bottom prices as disaster struck.

As they look towards the future, many here are worried that the nightmare could be a recurring one unless major work is undertaken on the protective dykes, which have been breached in multiple places.

Gao Yunde, an energetic steely-haired 66-year-old is one of the few people still left at the emergency evacuation centre set up in a primary school a few kilometres from his home. He and his wife and grandchild are sleeping on folding beds in one of the class rooms. Their house was damaged and declared unsafe in the floods, he says. But that's not his only worry. "The dyke needs to be built up higher in order to protect us," he says. But repairs have been piecemeal in the past and he admits he has no idea where the local government would find the cash to do a fundamental rebuilding job.

A drive through the region reveals a network of breached dykes that have allowed flood waters to swirl across the countryside, although the barrier stopping the main waterway, the Huai River, from flooding here, is intact.

Apart from building up the dykes, the only other real solution is building houses on raised platforms - something that has been tried in some areas. It has drawbacks - it is extremely costly, it leaves residents marooned in the event of floods and makes delivering relief supplies difficult. It also makes digging foundations for houses arduous.

Still, as he stands by the rubble of his house, farmer Liu Jihuai, looks to that as a possible solution. His preferred option would be resettlement on safer land altogether, "but that would involve negotiations about land with another village."

Second-best would be a raised platform. But to build one big enough to accommodate the whole village would cost more than five million yuan ($660,000). And he knows it's unlikely to happen any time soon.

For the moment, he is doing his best to cope with reality, which is a pile of rubble, his flooded land and little control over his family's future.

Meanwhile, the International Federation is continuing to appeal for support for its appeal in order to assist families like Liu Jihuai's and make vulnerable communities more resilient in the future.