Volunteers sort donated materials after the Wenchuan quake in 2008. Photo by Julien Rideller
Sichuan Quake Relief is a Chengdu-based, community-response NGO that formed in May 2008 in response to the Wenchuan earthquake, providing immediate relief as well as working on longer-term assistance projects west Sichuan. The organization also provided aid following the 2010 quake that hit the Yushu region of the Sichuan-Qinghai border.
Days after the Lushan quake, we sat down with SQR founder Peter Goff, who had gone to Lushan following the jolt and reported that search-and-rescue efforts were shifting toward relief work—providing the displaced with temporary shelter, food, water, and medical aid. Frequent and heavy aftershocks, landslides, and rain were causing logistical difficulties, especially in the most isolated parts that were cut off from road access.
At the time of writing, the quake and subsequent aftershocks had left nearly 200 people dead, around 20 missing, more than 11,000 injured (among which 1,000 cases were classified as severe), and 150,000 homeless.
Can you give us a general update on the situation in Lushan?
The lack of access is a bit frustrating. All the NGOs are waiting to get in. After the last experience they are well prepared, but the permits to go in will be restricted – I think there will be tighter restrictions [than in 2008] because of the potential for congestion and the extreme dangers going up there. You're surrounded by mountains which must be four, five thousand meters high and with just straight cliff faces. The day I was there, two vehicles went off the edge, one excavator and one truck that was carrying some soldiers. And this was in dry conditions, so you can imagine what's like when it's wet up there.
Lushan citizens in front of their collapsed home. Photo by China News
Like in the 5.12 [May 12, 2008] quake, you have structural engineers going up there carrying three pots of paint, green, red, and yellow. If your house is OK, they paint it green, if it needs reinforcement, they splash it yellow, and if it has to come down they splash it red. Out of the 150,000 homeless some get the green splash, and they can move back in, and the ones with a red splash have to be rebuilt. This time they started putting up tents really quickly. In Lushan Middle School, they had them fully erected by Saturday night [the day of the quake]—200 tents, each accommodating 12 people or so. And that was one of eight tent centers in Lushan. Somewhere on the road between Ya'an and Lushan they have 60,000 tents, so there should be enough tents and enough medics on the road to help.
What is SQR doing at the moment?
While we're waiting [to get in to assess the situation], we're preparing hygiene packs like we did for 5.12. We take a plastic basin and fill it with detergents, hand wipes, soaps, toothbrushes and toothpaste, Band-Aids, plus things that are useful in a camping environment—strings, scissors, waterproof tape, disposable ponchos, candles, lighters. We can make any number of those—depending on what you put, they in probably cost less than RMB100 a pack. People can donate items or cash for those, but it should be noted that it is illegal in China to distribute used clothes—everything must be new.
Photo provided by Peter Goff
What were the gaps in relief efforts following the Wenchuan quake?
Those things like hygiene products were a very obvious gap. The Red Cross fed everyone and provided water, but those things like hygiene and basic sanitation were not really taken care of. Any kind of rehabilitation—mental rehabilitation, building communities and temporary shelters was an important factor to get people into a more organized and positive life and entice them to improve their own quality of life and look after the most disadvantaged, the disabled, and the dislocated with a poverty-stricken background.
What major projects were you able to complete?
We set up a community center in the old earthquake area and a school, which runs by itself and doesn't need too much day-to-day care, we're just on the board to advise. In the community center we run development projects and grassroots NGO incubation and cultivation projects.
Since 2008, SQR ran through three stages. The first year after the Wenchuan quake was helping with emergency relief. Then in years two and three we dealt with people in temporary tent villages and tried to improve their lives with physical and mental rehabilitation, sanitation, and education projects. And when people moved back into permanent dwellings in the fourth and fifth years, we did grassroots incubation—training people with disabilities and giving them microloans so they could set up their own businesses.
The 5.12 network was quite active in training people in civil society development and NGO activity. Where these people are working, what their projects are doing now, I'm not sure, but they will probably get involved in this. It probably needs the same coalition like the last time, but the scale is obviously a lot smaller.
How long did it take to build houses and reinstall infrastructure?
Last time, the lucky ones were back in their house 18 months to two years after, and the unlucky ones three to four years—but there are still people not in houses. After three years they took down temporary shelters regardless if they had homes to go to or not. Because there were enough houses in the area, people who didn't have homes could at least rent rooms in somebody else's house. Back then Sichuan kind of benefited from the government's stimulus package.
In Lushan, obviously, the infrastructural damages are not on the same scale. You can drive 10 to 15minutes from Lushan, and there is no damage whatsoever, but then you get into the area that's obviously stricken, but it's not as widespread as last time.
Tongji, Pengzhou after the Wenchuan quake. Photo by Qingwei
Does it even make sense to rebuild in a quake area if there'll just be more quakes?
Last century there were several quakes in the area, and next century there will be quakes in the area. The fault line runs right down to Yunnan and up to Qinghai. So it's extremely likely there will be a bigger quake in the next 20 years. What do people do? In Beichuan they decided that building in that landscape was a bad idea initially and moved 25km down the river. But that option doesn't really present itself here because most of the people affected are farmers. If you're a 50-year-old farmer with nothing but an acre of land or two, what are you options? I don't know what [the authorities are] going to do in terms of the bigger picture.
I guess you can take some confidence out of the fact that the schools built after 2008—the Lushan Middle School, for example— 1,600 kids walked out in 20 seconds without one scratch [the incidence of school buildings collapsing in the 2008 quake was infamously and disproportionately high]. So there is truth that buildings kill people, not earthquakes. If they are rebuilding properly there don't have to be future fatalities.
[We were able to call the people] at a library we donated to a temporary school in Baoxing. They remembered us from before and told us that the rebuilt school stayed up along with all the rebuilt schools stood up in the area. But Baoxing wasn't the worst hit part—I imagine that there were houses that came down twice [once in 2008 and again in 2013].
Who is behind SQR currently?
If you'd asked me that on Friday, I'd have said no one. There are a few people, Catherine [Platt, "Found in Translation" columnist in Chengdoo Citylife Magazine and active member of the Chengdu expat community] and me, who are still working on it every week.
How do you ensure transparency?
We've got a committee. Last time the treasurers in the chambers of commerce supervised all incoming and outgoing money. For the moment, I don't have that problem, because there is no money yet. But once there is, I will do something similar. When we work with multiple organizations, like the chambers of commerce and Chengdu International Women's Club, the Rotary Club, they all have their own internal sort of reporting systems, and they have their treasurers, so there are checks and balances in that alone.
We also appoint someone who's not involved with any those to supervise the finances. As much as possible, we try to link the donor with a specific project. For example, if a significant donor would come, we would ask them to buy the tents and pay the factory directly. That way we don't touch the cash at all. We also tried to document what all the different NGOs and relief groups were doing and what their contacts are so that we can better coordinate them and match donors to projects. Sometimes other NGOs come in and we help them and do logistics and provide them with a driver and translator and access. It worked last time, and that's why I guess people are offering to help us this time.
On that note, how can concerned citizens help? Is the best way just donating money?
We could have Chengdu-based volunteers later. But it won't be getting on a truck and going up for 48 hours [like some volunteers did last time], it could be fundraising, updating Web sites. Quite a few people who were living here in 2008 are now scattered around the world and are starting fundraising initiatives.
The events at the Bookworm [the barbecue and concert as well as the Des Bishop comedy night] are raising a bit of money and initial awareness, and then people and start to get together and discuss options—different groups are doing different things. In terms of funding we recommend people coordinating projects to wait a bit, see what the state is going to do, what the Red Cross is going to do, and what the other NGOs are going to do. And we'll see what gaps appear and fill those gaps. But that won't become apparent before a couple of weeks, and we move on from that point.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 64 ("Traffic").