China

Frequent disasters in 2005 took a terrible toll on the hundreds of millions of Chinese people

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Hope Weiner in Ruichang city

Wei an Ying, 56, was just beginning to recover from disastrous floods that in September 2005 accompanied a typhoon that robbed him of his autumn cotton crops and damaged his house.

But on Saturday, 26 November, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck his village of Xi Xin Qiao, near the city of Ruichang. The earthquake destroyed all that remained of his home. The quake wrecked 150,000 other homes and forced 600,000 people to evacuate. Destruction from the quake spread to neighbouring provinces.

Weeks after the earthquake, as the effects of winter continue to creep in, most families who lost their homes remain in tents.

Now living in a tent with his wife, Wei an Ying explains that outside help is his only hope of rebuilding his home.

Five families clustered in tents next to Wei an Ying are in the midst of preparing morning tea. Their working-age men prepare to travel to the cities in the hope of finding temporary work.

As well as losing their homes in the earthquake, many families lost their livelihoods during the summer in Anhui and Jiangxi provinces during three waves of floods and destructive hail storms. The disasters took lives, the season's rice and cotton crops, and the food and income of thousands of families. Many people will have to make do until May 2006 when the crops planted in autumn are due to be harvested.

Rural communities are supported by the Red Cross Society of China's branches, which raise money and distribute relief in the vast areas of China that are hit by large and small disasters every year, including floods, typhoons, landslides, earthquakes, hail and drought.

After the Jiangxi quake, the Red Cross of China and the International Federation distributed tents, quilts and water. The Red Cross of China, with support from the Japanese Red Cross, is providing temporary sanitation.

In China, the tragedy of natural disasters is made worse by demographics. Many working-age family members leave their villages to earn money in cities by taking transitory jobs.

But rural people who move to cities are unlikely to get rich. According to the United Nations Development Programme, a third of China's wealth is concentrated in the hands of 10 per cent of the population. The poorest 10 per cent in China have access to a mere 1.8 per cent of the country's wealth.

With parents leaving their children to be raised by grandparents, rural families now consist of two vulnerable groups - the elderly and children. They remain on the sidelines of society and economic growth, together with people who have a mental or physical disability.

During disasters, this fragmentation leads to worry, as thousands of migrant workers are unable to contact their parents or their children to find out if they are safe.

Loss comes hardest to those who have the least. Average annual incomes of 3,000 Renmimbi (roughly US $ 350) must pay for the basic daily needs of a family of three or four. The money must stretch to cover seeds, school fees, medical bills, fertilizer, water for fields, and medicine for the family and, in some cases, livestock.

After disasters, families have to repair their homes, requiring a substantial amount of the year's income for materials and labour.

Winter is the cruelest time. The lucky ones who have stored food for the winter eat rice, sweet potatoes and peanuts or beans. Families who have lost crops to floods and hail have to rely on the generosity of relatives.

Flood-damaged mud walls, which were never stable to begin with, are now held up with wires strung across the house. Sheets of folded food wrappers function as insulation.

Nothing is automatic. Water for tea is pumped and fires lit before people walk to the fields, where they push carts by hand.

It was a desire to improve life in poor rural communities that led the Red Cross Society of China and the International Federation to start water and sanitation projects in Guangxi province in 2001, funded by the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department, ECHO. Since then, water and sanitation projects have been expanded into Hunan and most recently Chongqing provinces. A new Red Cross programme aims to help people in farming communities pay medical fees.

"Eight hundred million people in China survive under very tough conditions," says Alistair Henley, head of the East Asia regional delegation for the International Federation.

"Unfortunately, many donors are pulling away from China because they hear about its economic growth and think their aid is not needed. But the needs -- especially in the rural heartland - are immense.

"We must make sure the world does not forget these people."