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Emerging from the
ruins in China

 

In a remote, mountainous region of China, people are rebuilding houses destroyed by terrifying disasters.

 

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 and beds.

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.

Big donation

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 delegation.

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.

Workable model

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 price.

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.”


A neighbour inspects his destroyed house.
©FRANCIS MARKUS / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION

 

 

 

 

“We’re proud to be living in a house like this now”

 

 

 

 


Huang Linjian and Lei Touzhu, below, stand proudly with their grandchild outside their new house in Lingxiu township.
©FRANCIS MARKUS / INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION

 

Francis Markus
Francis Markus is a media consultant based in China.

 

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