China’s Rebuilding Effort Takes On Breakneck Pace

China’s Rebuilding Effort Takes On Breakneck Pace
Nation Mobilizes To Repair Damage, Resettle Thousands

By Andrew Batson
Updated July 2, 2008 12:01 a.m. ET

DUJIANGYAN, China — Time is running short. It has been nearly two months since a massive earthquake in China’s Sichuan province leveled towns and left millions homeless.

Government officials have decided that by August they have to come up with a plan for rebuilding a disaster zone covering about 50,000 square miles, an area larger than Indiana. Dozens of towns and cities need to be rebuilt, some nearly from scratch. One of the biggest projects will be Dujiangyan, a scenic and historic city that was heavily damaged.

The rapid rebuilding program plays to the strengths of China’s centralized, authoritarian government: its ability to mobilize physical and financial resources across a large nation, and to rouse popular enthusiasm with broad social campaigns.

City governments across China have “adopted” areas of Sichuan, sending in their own people to jump-start reconstruction. The central government, flush with cash from a booming economy, set aside $10 billion for rebuilding in this year alone, with more to come. There has been little of the dickering over budgets and lines of responsibility that delayed the U.S. effort to rebuild New Orleans after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Yet the breakneck pace set by the government — three months to plan, three years to rebuild — is no small challenge. Dujiangyan, as home to a unique 2,000-year-old irrigation project designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, is under particular pressure to do reconstruction right.

The people charged with rebuilding the city themselves need places to stay. With government offices rendered unsafe by the earthquake, planners set up temporary shop in a damaged building with cracks running up and down the walls and gaps in corners because one wall leans outward. Qu Jun, director of the Dujiangyan City Planning Bureau, keeps a cot in his office. Meals of instant noodles and fruit are taken on folding tables in the parking lot.

Mr. Qu unrolls a map of the city and lays out the problem. “If we don’t do it right now we’ve lost our chance,” he says. “Over 100,000 people are basically homeless in Dujiangyan….It’s inhumane if they stay [in temporary housing] for a long time. Half a year is already too much.”

Few refugees will be lucky enough to spend only half a year in the barracks-like temporary housing now going up around Sichuan. About 7.8 million homes were destroyed by the earthquake, and three times that number were damaged. Even if the planning effort can be finished in August, officials say they won’t be able to start building in earnest until winter.

Finding the space is the trick. The old city center is basically unusable: Mr. Qu estimates it will take two years just to clear out the rubble. The temporary housing also will occupy big swaths of land, further reducing the area available for permanent housing. So he thinks Dujiangyan will have to be rebuilt around a new city center, probably one of the small villages on the outskirts of the current town.

To supplement its own resources, the city government has asked architects and planners from France, Malaysia and Japan to contribute to the rebuilding plan. “Everyone realizes there will be a huge amount of real-estate activity going on in Dujiangyan,” says Harry Lu, head of the Shanghai office of WWCOT, a Los Angeles-based architecture and design firm that is also participating.

But the urgent pace of disaster recovery means throwing standard working procedures out the window. “Usually, in order to do a master plan like this, we need to live on the site for at least three or four months, in order to understand what kind of weather they have, what kind of population, what kind of industry, what kind of flowers grow there,” says Mr. Lu. Instead, he has a month to do everything. “The challenges are really huge. The more I think about this project, the more problems occur to me.”

Big decisions will have to be rushed: Does Dujiangyan now need an airport? What kind of buildings could best survive another quake? The planners know they can’t aim for perfection.

“We can’t guarantee there will be no mistakes in the plan, but we just want to make sure there are no big mistakes,” says Mr. Qu, the head of the city planning bureau. “Maybe after this urgent drive for reconstruction we can focus on improving the old town. Then we may have more time to focus on that. Now what we want to do is settle the people as soon as possible, and help tourism and the supporting industries recover.”

The old city center was, however, one of the centers of Dujiangyan’s busy tourism industry. The city has received more than five million tourists annually in recent years. The city’s main park is still closed to the public, and it is easy to see why.

Liu Xianjie, head of the Sichuan Institute of Urban Planning and Design, stops at the base of a pile of rubble. “Before the earthquake, thousands of people came here every day,” he says, gesturing upwards to an antique temple half-buried in stone and earth. “I’m afraid it will be very difficult for tourism to recover quickly.” To properly restore the Erwang temple — dedicated to the builders of the ancient waterworks — likely will take months of painstaking effort to ensure new work fits with original materials and design.

Nonetheless, tourism seems to be central to how the quake-stricken areas will revitalize themselves. Even away from major destinations like Dujiangyan, many mountain villages in the area have long had some small-scale tourism, offering local sights and rustic hotels. Those sources of income look to become much more important as sharpened safety and environmental concerns restrict industry in the quake-stricken counties.

In Beichuan, a mountainous county northeast of Dujiangyan, a county official says two-thirds of the factories are so damaged that they won’t be able to restart operations in their original locations. There aren’t many obvious options to replace the jobs and incomes lost from industry. Tourism sounds good, but in the absence of established draws local officials are getting creative. The earthquake itself has provided some ideas.

Song Ming, Beichuan’s Communist Party secretary, says he is looking into preserving the Tangjiashan “quake lake” as a tourist attraction. The body of water, formed when landslides blocked a river’s flow, was the subject of news coverage for weeks as soldiers worked to prevent it from collapsing and flooding the homes of millions of people.

“Now the whole world knows Tangjiashan. It’s a brand, and that’s something very valuable,” says Mr. Song, sitting outside at a tent at a resettlement camp in his county. A museum commemorating the earthquake is slated to be built in the old county seat of Beichuan, most of which was leveled by the earthquake.

For the locals, emotions are still raw, and such plans seem distant. “It’s a place of tragedy and sad memories. My family and my house are all gone,” says Yan Chun, a 29-year-old mother from Beichuan who lost her husband and her six-year-old son in the earthquake. “The only comfort for me now is my daughter,” she says, shielding the 4-month-old’s head from the Sichuan summer sun.

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