Yushu still struggling, one year after quake

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 April, 2011, 12:00am

'Toil for three years and you will leapfrog ahead by 20 years' is the government slogan to motivate reconstruction of Yushu prefecture.

But many Yushu residents have begun to wonder if the promise was realistic.

On this day last year, a 7.1-magnitude earthquake killed at least 2,700 people and flattened 200,000 homes.

The government released a grand master plan last June pledging a brand new Yushu in three years. Today, only a few houses dot Jiegu town, the prefecture seat that was reduced to rubble, along with some stand-alone doors looking incongruous without houses around them.

'It has been one year, and you would expect something to have been built,' said teacher Sangyang, 33, who lost a brother in the quake. 'But it still looks like one big construction site, with dust everywhere. Probably no outsider would believe we don't even have proper roads.'

The only new structures are a handful of half-finished multi-storey complexes that are to be schools and hospitals, reconstruction priorities as promised by the government. Most residents are still housed in blue tents sprawled across settlement areas around Jiegu.

Schools, hospitals and government offices are currently in rows of prefabricated buildings. Most commercial activities are based there - restaurants, minimarts, hairdressing salons, pharmacies and even hotels.

There has been slow progress despite government investment of 5 billion yuan (HK$5.95 billion) in 298 reconstruction projects last year and pledges to invest another 20 billion yuan this year. Beijing, Liaoning and four state-owned companies have been assigned to support Yushu, sending more than 1,700 cadres and 30,000 workers in the past year.

Hong Kong had donated more than HK$100 million as of mid-May last year via the central government's liaison office. A heavy sense of uncertainty looms over most residents, unsure about when they can stop moving their tents from one spot to another because of reconstruction needs, or when they can move out of the tents altogether.

The June plan did not specify a reconstruction timeline, but it appears that the first year was set aside to demolish and clear Jiegu town, and only after that would reconstruction work start, on the first anniversary of the April 14 quake. Qinghai authorities say all rural houses and most of the houses in Jiegu will be rebuilt by August.

'I can't even tell if I'm going to have a house or not,' said teacher Cicheng Zhuoma, 27, who lost six relatives in the disaster, including her brother. 'Local officials have discussed with us about a new 80-square-metre house but nothing has been confirmed yet.'

High food and petrol prices are also cause for common lament, with many locals still jobless and relying on government subsidies.

Truck driver Luo Chengfo and his wife, two sons and a cousin live in a tent in the Zaxike settlement. They walk a kilometre each day to fetch water and can afford to have meat only twice a month. But Luo is happy. 'At least I have a job and we have not starved a single day since the quake,' he said. Their only concern is the promised post-quake subsidy of 10 yuan per person per day for three years. The payments stopped in September.

Meanwhile, on Qinghai television, a beaming advertisement suggests a new Yushu will have among its new features a six-lane boulevard, waterside bars and a wetlands park.

But officials cite the average altitude of 3,700 metres and small window of time allowed for rebuilding as two big barriers. Unpredictable weather and long winters on the Tibetan plateau mean any building work occurs mainly between April and September.

'Back home, a strong man like me can easily carry 50kg; here I can't do so without running short of breath,' said Li Hua, 50, a worker from Shanxi who has lost 4.5kg since he arrived a month ago, not to mention the severe headaches he had when he first came. His boss has ordered that each worker must eat what their 30 yuan food allowance buys daily, to help ward off illness.

Unreliable electricity and water supplies are two other problems. Many of Yushu's hydropower plants were damaged during the quake. Electricity is cut off every few hours.

Located at the head of three major rivers, Yushu is an environmentally protected area, so there are no factories. All building material must be transported from surrounding cities; Qinghai's capital Xining is about a 15-hour drive away.

Natural constraints aside, local concerns also appear to be delaying progress. Residents say the government has promised a house of 80 square metres for every family that used to own a house, but most Tibetan families owned big houses and yards. The resumption of private land to expand roads also raises issues of compensation. Some say they prefer to be paid cash so they can build their own houses.

Many spoke of a protest of about 100 Tibetans in Jiegu a week ago over the confiscation of their land. All were detained, they said. A police officer said yesterday the protest involved a group of Tibetans chanting Buddhist sutras day and night.

Even in the new Changu village, residents worry about the need to pay for the land where their free 80-square-metre houses stand.

'This house is much better than our old house, even though it's smaller,' odd-job worker Endong Cairen, 41, said. 'But I don't have money to pay for this land, which costs about 1,500 yuan per one-tenth of a mu.'

Others face more pressing needs. The government has not released an official tally of the children orphaned, elderly who lost their families or people who were disabled by the quake, but social workers estimate their numbers to be in the hundreds. For example, the collapsed No 3 Wanquan Primary School has 111 orphans, while the Gongcheng Five Buddha Elderly Home is looking after more than 80 aged people who have no family.

Those injured during the quake suffer from a lack of medical facilities.

Ciyang Baimu, 27, was buried for more than two hours and her right lower leg was amputated. Her first prosthetic leg was too heavy and she could barely walk for months. Finally, this year, she has received a fourth limb which allows her to move freely.

Ciyang was fortunate because she was treated at Xian Jiaotong University Hospital in Shaanxi. Many of her friends could only afford locally made prosthetic limbs and these often caused further physical damage, as in the case of Nanqu, 33, a mother of five who can hardly sit up straight now. Her husband Zaxi Nima, 38, has to take care of her and do all the housework instead of working. 'I just want to be able to stand up and take care of my family,' Nanqu said, hugging her crying son.