Six months after China earthquake survivors still vulnerable

As winter sets in, six months after the massive China earthquake, many survivors remain in temporary shelter and the elderly are particularly vulnerable.

The earthquake, which struck on 12 May, devastated south-western China, killing more than 80,000 people and displacing nearly 15 million people in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces.

The Red Cross Society of China, supported by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has carried out an enormous humanitarian relief operation. The British Red Cross contributed blankets and tents, as well as deploying water and sanitation experts to help prevent outbreaks of disease.

Survivors of the earthquake have shown immense resilience and the rapid response of the government in rebuilding homes is clearly visible. However, many people are currently housed in temporary shelters with walls and roofs made of reed matting, which are not durable for more than a few months and will soon be unable to withstand the rains.

Cash grants programme

With a harsh winter approaching, particularly in the mountainous areas, people deliberate over prioritising their many pressing needs. Clearing vast volumes of debris will take a considerable amount of time, let alone rebuilding permanent houses which is an enormous task, and not immediately feasible. Jola Miziniak, British Red Cross relief officer, said: "People are focusing on surviving winter; ensuring they have enough food, keeping warm and protecting their livestock."

Many people relying on agricultural plots, to produce food for themselves and fodder for their livestock, have significantly reduced supplies. Those who can, have migrated from rural areas to find work to supplement their income while others, especially the elderly, who are not able to work, are struggling. The British Red Cross is planning a cash grants programme to help more than 75,000 of the most vulnerable people, focusing on the elderly, the disabled and households headed by a single female.

Preparing for winter

Jola said: "People receiving the grants can decide on their greatest priorities. Those living within the mountain range will be more exposed to cold conditions with possible snowfall, while others further into the valley will experience milder temperatures.

"All, however, are subject to rain and damp conditions, making them susceptible to respiratory illness. Through cash grants they have a choice whether to invest in plastic sheeting, hay insulation and roofing tiles to improve their shelters, or they may wish to invest in livestock, food and medicine."

As well as supporting some of the most vulnerable people, the British Red Cross will be helping rural farmers get back on their feet. Dave Mather, British Red Cross recovery manager, said: "They are usually self-sufficient, with both a winter wheat and rice crop supplementing income from livestock. But most pigpens were destroyed and they have no means of storing their harvest. Cash grants will help them buy seeds and livestock, and repair pigpens and grain stores."

Emotional and practical support

The scale of the disaster was huge and full recovery is expected to take a further two and a half years, including reconstruction of tens of thousands of homes, as well as schools and health clinics. Red Cross distributions of warm quilts, hygiene items and food parcels are continuing for the next few months.

In addition to helping people re-establish their livelihoods and rebuild their homes, the Federation will help communities improve water and sanitation infrastructure, and enhance the Red Cross Society of China's ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters.

Together, the two organisations will also play a major role in healing survivors' psychological wounds, helping them deal with the effects of the earthquake and loss of loved ones.