The 7.9 magnitude earthquake that sturck Sichuan Province on May 12 caused widespread destruction. At the end of June, the death toll stood at over 69,000 and more than 18,000 remained missing. An estimated 374,200 people were injured, including nearly 115,000 who required hospitalization. Nearly 1.5 million have been rescued and evacuated from mountainous quake-affected areas, and an estimated 7.8 million houses were destroyed and 24.5 million damaged, mostly in rural areas.
Millions of tents, blankets and garments have been distributed throughout region, in addition to millions of tons of food and fuel. Donations have reached 7.9 billion USD and current priorities for relief work include resettling displaced survivors, repairing infrastructure and preventing disease outbreaks.
Shannon Doocy and Courtland Robinson, faculty members from the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, visited earthquake-affected areas of Sichuan Province in June, approximately six weeks after the earthquake. Displaced populations were residing in tent camps, often with several families living in a tent. The extent of devastation was enormous, and at six weeks on, the Chinese government was doing an impressive job of providing basic services to the displaced population, particularly considering the scale of the disaster and the widespread displacement that resulted.
Construction of 364,000 barracks had already been completed and many more are planned or under construction. They will serve as transitional housing for the next two or three years. Replacement construction was well underway in most urban areas. The basic needs of the population, including food, water and sanitation, were being adequately provided for by the government—at least in the sites visited—and no disease outbreaks had been reported to date.
Displaced populations focused on longer-term concerns. This was particularly true among rural populations who were often displaced farther from their homes and whose ability to return remained in question. Landslides severed access to many communities in the mountainous regions, forcing evacuations by helicopter or with army assistance. Continued landslide risk and the reconstruction of roads and basic utilities in these areas may continue for years, leaving the immediate future of populations from these areas uncertain. Urban areas faced equally complex situations where significant portions of entire cities will need to be demolished before reconstruction can begin. Some of the most affected areas remain under quarantine because bodies have not been removed from rubble, and it is unclear if these towns will be rebuilt and inhabited again in the future.
Sarah Henley-Shepard, who earned her MPH at the Bloomberg School in 2008 with a concentration in humanitarian assistance, is working with a local Chinese nonprofit organization, China Social Entrepreneur Foundation (locally known as You Cheng) to provide sanitation, safe play environments for displaced children, and forms of basic assistance in the city of Mianzhu and surrounding townships. Christine Fu, a PhD student in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society, is working with Mercy Corps on psychosocial interventions, and in the area of Dujiangyan. A team of health professionals from Jilin Province’s Yanbian Hospital, who had participated in a disaster preparedness and emergency health training program through a Center for Refugee and Disaster Response project, were also involved in immediate response and assistance efforts.
The Center for Refugee and Disaster Response is currently exploring collaborations with local Chinese nongovernmental organizations and the West China School of Public Health. The Center hopes to document earthquake impacts and long-term recovery outcomes, as well as provide technical support to organizations providing humanitarian assistance.