Enforcement of higher building standards urged

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 September, 2008, 12:00am

The mainland should upgrade the standard of buildings and schools in earthquake-prone areas and better enforce those standards, the UN resident co-ordinator for China, Khalid Malik, said yesterday.

Thousands of children were killed in the May 12 Sichuan earthquake when the schools they were attending collapsed within seconds, while many nearby buildings remained standing. Grieving parents attributed the deaths to shoddy construction caused by corruption and lax regulation.

Speaking after giving a briefing in Hong Kong to local non-governmental organisations, consulates and central government representatives on post-quake reconstruction in Sichuan, Mr Malik said the problem was not only about upgrading standards, but also about 'making the standards work' .

But while the United Nations had tried to bring in experts from around the world to share their experiences on improving building standards with mainland authorities, Mr Malik said the ultimate task of monitoring those standards belonged to local authorities.

'We share our experiences, monitor what we do in our own programmes, and work with local institutions ... [but] monitoring the construction and housing is the responsibility of the local authorities,' he said.

The collapse of so-called 'tofu' schools has remained a sensitive topic on the mainland, even though a state-commissioned expert committee on the quake concluded this month that substandard construction materials and the bad design of school buildings were partly to blame for the heavy death toll.

The exact figure of dead students, however, has never been disclosed by the authorities.

More than four months after the quake, the UN is trying to help victims rebuild their lives, with the launch of the UN China Appeal for Early Recovery Support, a project that is expected to last six to nine months.

So far, the UN has raised US$18 million for the US$33.5 million project, which the central government also supports.

The appeal covers nine areas, including shelter, water, hygiene and sanitation, and educating ethnic minorities.

It is hoped that the project will lay the foundation for longer-term recovery co-operation in Sichuan and the neighbouring provinces of Gansu and Shaanxi .

'What we are most concerned with is how to start people's lives again,' Mr Malik said.

Instead of going to the better-known quake-hit areas, he said the focus would be on remote and poor areas that received less attention.

'I think Wenchuan and some of the provinces have received a lot of support, and we want to focus on areas that have not been given a lot of support and are a bit far away from the main area,' Mr Malik said.

A series of aftershocks had also complicated the task of reconstruction, he said, which made it difficult to relocate people.

On Sunday in Hong Kong, Mr Malik attended a ceremony marking the International Day of Peace, an event jointly organised by the University of Hong Kong and Rotary International District 3450.