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CHINA: In Latest Quake, Poorly Built Schools Haunt Gov’t – Again

Mitch Moxley

BEIJING, Apr 19 2010 (IPS) - Collapsed buildings, homes turned to rubble, students killed or trapped in the wreckage of schools and dormitories – last week’s 7.1-magnitude earthquake in western China’s remote Qinghai province offered chilling reminders of the Sichuan earthquake that killed almost 90,000 people in 2008.

In Qinghai, where the death toll from the Apr. 14 quake has surpassed 1,700 with hundreds still unaccounted for, a far smaller and less dense population means the final casualty total will not match that of the devastating quake two years ago.

But with schools lying in ruin and the bodies of students still being pulled from the rubble, criticism of shoddy construction is once again being levied on Chinese authorities.

In Jiegu, the hardest hit city, 56 children and five teachers were crushed in collapsing schools or dormitories, according to ‘China Daily’ newspaper. In one incident, 22 children died when a vocation school toppled, and 20 more were missing in the wreckage of a primary school.

Gu Guohua, a seismologist, said in an interview with state-run China Central Television (CCTV) that 90 percent of the homes in Jeigu had collapsed. He described the houses – made of wood, mud and brick – as being of “quite poor quality.”

In nearby Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, 70 percent of school buildings collapsed, according to China National Radio. “The death toll may rise further as lots of houses collapsed,” said Wu Yong, commander of the Yushu military area command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, according to ‘Global Times’ newspaper.

In the 2008 Sichuan quake, thousands of students were killed in collapsed schools. Subsequent investigations revealed that poor design, faulty construction and ignored or under-enforced building codes were rampant. Both quakes occurred along the Longmenshan fault, which runs underneath the mountains that divide the Tibetan plateau and Sichuan plain.

In another echo of the Sichuan quake, there was concern about the stability of a cracked dam, forcing many residents to flee to nearby mountains. Yushu is home to the headwaters of the Yangtze, Mekong and Yellow rivers, all of which are used to produce hydropower.

Across Qinghai the Chinese government has undertaken an aggressive military-led relief effort, and over the weekend soldiers, medics and volunteers flooded Jiegu. President Hu Jintao flew to Jiegu on Sunday to console victims. “There will be new schools! There will be new homes!” Hu wrote on a blackboard in a tent occupied by orphaned children, according to the state Xinhua News Agency.

Chen Zhao Yuan, a professor of civil engineering at Tsinghua University who specialises in seismic buildings, said that local governments in high-risk zones have not done enough to prepare for major earthquakes, and that building codes are routinely ignored.

“Sometimes code and implementation are two very different subjects,” Chen told IPS. “Seismic prevention code requires that all buildings should still be standing after any major earthquake, but obviously this is not the case in our country. Most of the farmers build houses by themselves; they know nothing about the building code. So it’s the local governments’ job to supervise them, but obviously they haven’t done a good job.”

After the Sichuan quake, the central government in Beijing began paying closer attention to at-risk zones.

In July 2008, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine jointly published updated codes and standards for buildings’ seismic design. Schools and other crowded public buildings were all targeted for improved earthquake protection.

In Xinjiang province, 350,000 people moved into new earthquake-resistant homes in 2009, according to Feng Peng, an associate professor at Tsinghua’s School of Public Policy and Management. But he says that both levels of government need to work more closely together in order to better protect these areas.

In 2008, Feng visited Wen Chuan, Sichuan, and found that buildings that were constructed according to the country’s building codes were still standing. Those that were not were in ruins. “The central government and local governments need to make sure that the buildings are built according to the building codes, and to make sure that no one cuts corners,” Feng said in an interview with IPS.

Liu Xila, a professor of civil engineering at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said the problem is education and enforcement. “We need to promote earthquake knowledge to people in earthquake vulnerable areas. Most of these people don’t have the proper knowledge of what to do during an earthquake,” Liu said.

Tsinghua’s Chen agrees. He said that along with better-enforced building codes, people in at-risk areas should be given earthquake survival training, including non-scheduled safety drills. “From what happened in the Wen Chuan (Sichuan) earthquake and the Yu Shu (Qinghai) earthquake, we can tell that most of the people – children and adults – didn’t know how to react,” Chen said. “Only the ones who did survived.”

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