Communities transformed three years on from Sichuan earthquake

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By Francis Markus in China

Three years after an 8-magnitude earthquake devastated huge areas of China’s Sichuan Province, leaving more than 87,000 people dead and millions displaced, the region has made an impressive recovery. A massive reconstruction programme undertaken by the Red Cross Red Crescent, has funded the re-building of more than 2,000 schools, more than 5,000 clinics and hospitals and has helped more than 183,000 families to rebuild their homes.

The quake affected a total of six provinces, with neighbouring Gansu and Shaanxi worst-hit after Sichuan. Immediately after the disaster, Red Cross Red Crescent Emergency Response Units together with 100,000 tents were deployed to the affected area, and the Red Cross Society of China was at the forefront of what was to become the biggest international relief and recovery effort ever to unfold in China.

IFRC President Tadateru Konoe, recalling the scenes he witnessed just weeks after the disaster at a conference marking the third anniversary of the quake taking place in the provincial capital Chengdu. “I saw communities reeling from the shattering force of the quake, and struggling to come to terms with what had happened. They were concerned about shelter, drinking water and food and wondered how they would reconstruct their lives,” he said .

Now, with the shelter programme complete, an important part of the IFRC’s support is concentrated on helping people to rebuild their livelihoods, which in many cases were destroyed in the disaster. More than 3,000 survivors have received vocational skills training, many of them farmers relocated from mountainous areas who had lost their land. More than 700 disabled people are also among the trainees.

As part of the livelihoods project, a micro-credit loan programme is also providing those who have finished the trainings with start-up capital to build up new businesses or expand existing ones. Livelihoods support is a critical need, particularly in light of the substantial levels of debt which many people have incurred from rebuilding their homes – despite Red Cross and government support.

But there is evidence that the efforts are helping. Farmhouse restaurant owner Shuai Yuhua says that she and her husband have managed to pay off their debt, because of the impact of the Red Cross training she took part in.

“Since the training we have many more customers,” she says. “More people like our food and some come back regularly. Before, our food was not as nice.”

Other Red Cross programmes are helping to enhance the long-term resilience of communities by working on developing better disaster preparedness and health systems which include improvements to water supply and sanitation and training in first aid.

Another priority has been psychosocial support to help people cope with the long term emotional impact of the disaster. This programme started immediately after the earthquake and has steadily widened, with schools throughout the disaster area using a toolkit adapted especially for the local context. 30,000 schoolchildren have so far been reached under this programme and psychosocial support is increasingly being integrated into the Red Cross Society of China’s disaster preparedness programming – an example, alongside livelihoods programmes, of ways in which the Sichuan earthquake has brought new approaches to the National Society’s humanitarian work.

The Emergency Response Units, deployed to Sichuan by the IFRC, is another example. They have now been handed over to the Red Cross Society of China, forming the basis of its own domestic Emergency Response teams. These were deployed in April 2010 after the Yushu earthquake in the western province of Qinghai, where they helped provide clean drinking water and sanitation for thousands of survivors.

Red Cross Society of China Vice President, Hao Linna says this preparedness makes the National Society more effective and efficient. “We will try to train international Emergency Response Units so that in future, if in some country there happens to be a disaster, we can send our emergency team,” he says.

Overall, the task of fashioning a programme of international support, workable in the Chinese context, characterised by the government’s strong directive role in disaster response and recovery, certainly posed challenges to the IFRC’s established ways of working.

President Konoe says. “There were some wrong turnings and delays along the road we travelled together. But when I look at our destination – these strong recovering communities, this transformation – I know that what we achieved together is of over-riding significance.”