THE view from Huang
Linjian’s rooftop, across the valley enclosed by green
wooded slopes, tells the story of the family’s life
this last year.
A few hundred metres away, on the other side of the fast-fl
owing muddy river, you can see the ochre-coloured ruins of
a mud and timber house.
“Everything we owned was washed down into the river.
I was desperate. I didn’t know what to do,” the
58-yearold rice farmer says. The makeshift tent in the foreground
was where he and his family had to take refuge.
There’s a happy ending, though, in the simple but solid
red brick house under our feet. It’s one of 240 rebuilt
with the assistance of the International Federation in Lingxiu,
a rural area in the isolated mountains of Hunan province in
central-southern China, after terrible floods and landslides
in July 2006 left several thousand families homeless. Sixty
houses have also been rebuilt in neighbouring Jiangxi province.
“We’re proud to be living in a house like this
now instead of our old mud house,” says Huang Linjian.
There are eight families in this little community of new
houses, decorated inside with white plaster walls and concrete
floors. Most are furnished with simple wooden stools, tables
Compared to the traditional mud and timber homes which still
dominate the landscape here, these houses offer a sense of
security that is all-important and underlines the value to
the beneficiaries of this type of project.
A step forward
One villager says his 96-year-old mother had never experienced
anything similar to last year’s terrifying torrents
of rain, triggering mud and rockslides, and cutting off swathes
of countryside. These came at the tail end of two typhoons
which lashed China’s south-eastern coastal provinces
which lie to the south of this mountainous barrier.
“The government was able to provide for most people’s
emergency needs, evacuation and food and temporary shelter,”
says Qinghui Gu, the International Federation’s Beijingbased
regional disaster management delegate. But an assessment concluded
that after the initial response, “there’s a big
gap, because lots of houses collapsed and people were forced
to move out. Without further support, it’s very difficult
to get back to their normal lives.”
Such reconstruction represents a step forward for the International
Federation’s work in China, where the focus was previously
on emergency relief.
The pilot project, drawn up by the International Federation
and the Red Cross Society of China, gave residents whose homes
were destroyed building materials worth 12,000 yuan (US$ 1,500).
They also benefited from a 5,000 yuan grant from the local
government and a 5,000 yuan interestfree loan.
Families still needed to find some additional cash ranging
from 2,000 to 30,000 yuan depending on their own individual
requirements. Villagers needed to be persuaded about certain
features of the project, says one local official. “Many
were a bit sceptical about having an indoor toilet because
they were used to having an outhouse.”
Given the obstacles of the terrain and the limited funds
available, the reconstruction project focused on a single
rural township, Lingxiu in Rucheng county, with a heavy concentration
of people from the Yao ethnic group, and where many families
were left homeless after last summer’s floods.
That has left hundreds of households in the more scattered
settlements of neighbouring townships to manage as best they
can without Red Cross Red Crescent reconstruction aid. Visit
the mountain village of Changchun and the contrast is clear.
Driving up a winding dirt road, which is impassable in rainy
weather even in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you come to a
cluster of new houses. Standing outside one of them is 40-year-old
Wang Genglin. His family is among 18 households in this scattered
settlement whose houses were washed down the mountain.
Wang Genglin had to build his new home using the 5,000 yuan
government grant and 5,000 yuan interest-free loan, and by
borrowing what money he could from relatives.
“The biggest problem for us is that everybody here
is now in debt,” he says. He owes a total of 10,000
yuan and many of his neighbours owe even larger sums. His
income from growing ginger on the hill slopes is insufficient
to repay the debt any time soon. So when winter comes, he
says he’ll join the flood of migrant workers who head
for the sprawl of factories somewhere in the neighbouring
province of Guangdong.
Given the constraints of time and cash, Wang Genglin’s
house represents a considerable achievement. But he has been
forced to cut corners on quality. The dwelling is hastily
put up using lime paste instead of cement. The walls inside
are bare brick and there’s a tarpaulin covering the
ceiling. There’s no running water and the electricity
supply tends to go off every evening.
As for his neighbours, several houses nearby have been built
by homeless families. But while the Red Cross-assisted homes
were completed in a tight four-month time frame, these dwellings
lie locked up and unfinished. “In most cases, people
have run out of money to finish the houses, they can’t
do the internal work and so they’re still staying with
relatives,” says Xiao Chunying, who heads the county’s
Red Cross branch.
A lively, energetic woman in her 40s, Xiao Chunying is also
deputy head of the county government, which has been a driving
force in implementing the project. And the way in which she
combines her roles to leverage the area’s strained resources
is an illustration of how the Red Cross Society of China operates
on the ground.
The organization started separating itself administratively
from the country’s Health Ministry under a new law passed
back in 1993. The process has been completed at the higher
echelons, although it has been only partially achieved at
the lower levels and the organization’s dependence on
the government at the grass-roots level remains marked.
Even so, the Red Cross Society of China has benefited from
the split, with greater ability to raise its own funds; last
year it brought in big donations nationally from a major state
oil company and one of China’s four big banks, and the
process is being replicated on a limited scale at local level.
“The Red Cross Society of China is evolving and positioning
itself as the landscape of civil society in China gradually
opens up. The International Federation’s partnership
in projects like this can help the National Society find its
place in this new environment,” says Alistair Henley,
head of the International Federation’s east Asia regional
Perhaps even more importantly, reconstruction projects such
as this one are also the most effective way of optimizing
resources for longer-term impact. As China’s economy
speeds ahead with 11 per cent growth in gross domestic product
and images of its skyscrapers and high speed trains imprint
themselves on outsiders’ minds, raising funds internationally
for disaster relief in China becomes an increasing challenge.
In the last decade, the response to the International Federation’s
appeals for China has been on a downward curve and last year’s
appeal raised only 20 per cent of its target.
But if there is a perception gap internationally, here in
the mountains of southern Hunan, the economic realities seem
clearer. Rucheng is officially classified by the government
as an “impoverished county” with annual per capita
income levels running at around 1,200 yuan.
“The key to our poverty here is our inaccessibility,”
says Xiao Chunying. Having travelled by car from Hunan’s
nearest main city, Chenzhou, it’s easy to see what she
means. It’s a three-hour journey and parts of the road
are badly rutted and potholed.
The central government plans to build a cross-country motorway
through the district in the next three to five years and add
a new rail link, measures that are likely to bring a significant
boost to the local economy, even if they exact an environmental
Even if living standards here start to rise, many other communities
will remain vulnerable, though, for whatever economic transformation
may arise in the next few years, it is safe to predict that
these villages will continue to be ravaged by further destructive
floods and storms in the years ahead.
But with this project, says Henley, “We believe we
have a successful workable model, which we and our Chinese
partners can take forward to help the most vulnerable people
in these communities rebuild their homes and their lives in
a more durable way.”