Tag Archives: Natural disasters

The lesson from the Ya’an earthquake

Ya'an veranda bridge (langqiao - 廊桥), Elosua Miguel

Ya’an is situated 120 kilometers southeast of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. The city is also known as the rainy city (yucheng – 雨城), as its fertile land is blessed with more annual rainfall than any other area in the region. The city was the capital of Sikang (xikang – 西康) before the province was dissolved in 1955. This area marks the end of Han territory, and the beginning of the Tibetan universe. Ya’an bridge is one of the few examples of veranda, or porch, bridges in China. The veranda serves not only as a place where locals can linger at their leisure, protected from the rain or the summer sun, but also as a market where local specialties are sold.

The Ya’an earthquake struck this seism-prone region almost five years after the deadly Wenchuan earthquake, which caused more than 90 thousand casualties. The Sichuan region is located on fault lines and both earthquakes occurred along the same fault (the Longmen Mountains fault). The epicenter of the seism was located in Yishan county, which, incidentally, is the place where the giant panda was spotted for the first time. The temblor left 196 people dead, 24 missing, and at least 11,826 injured. According to official sources, more than 80,000 buildings in urban areas, and more than 400,000 in rural areas, were damaged beyond repair. The Ya’an veranda bridge suffered no major damage.

However, it is well known that old does not necessarily mean good, as we learned from the number of schools that collapsed in the aftermath of the Wenchuan earthquake (more than 7,000). Thousands of students and teachers perished under the debris. Local authorities were widely criticized for not ensuring that the existing regulations for the construction of buildings such as schools were respected. The term “tofu construction” (doufuzha gongcheng – 豆腐渣工程) was coined to designate shoddily constructed buildings. Five years later, schools built in the area after the 2008 seism are still standing. According to official sources, “hospitals and schools built after 2008 have saved lives” as none of these buildings have collapsed.1

This brings up the issue of compliance with regulations. China’s building codes are comprehensive and include seismic construction guidelines. But the law falls onto stony ground if it is not applied. In an interview conducted during our field trip to Chongqing, Professor Liao Yuan He (廖元和) of the Chongqing Industry and Commerce University, reminded us of the importance of taking into account disaster management policies during the process of urbanization, specially when the size of urban built-up areas is about to triple in size by 2020 (taking 2007 as base).

The suggestions issued by the State Council for the reconstruction of Wenchuan also encourage public participation through public hearings in the elaboration of new urban plans.2

The Ya’an earthquake should serve as a lesson about the positive results that can be achieved when policies are implemented.

  1. SCMP, Friday, 26 April, 2013: “Officials say schools and hospitals rebuilt after 2008 saved lives” http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1223231/officials-say-schools-and-hospitals-rebuilt-after-2008-saved-lives (retrieved on Apr 30th 2013, 10:42pm []
  2. 2008年9月19日国务院关于印发汶川地震
灾后恢复重建总体规划的通知(Guowuyuan guanyu yinfa wenchuan dizhen zaihou huifu zhongjian zongti guihua de tongzhi) : http://www.gov.cn/zwgk/2008-09/23/content_1103686.htm (retrieved on April 30th 2013, 10:20pm []

Miguel Elosua

Spanish qualified lawyer; PhD in Chinese Law. UrbaChina Research Officer. Has lived in China since 2006.

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