The devastating 6.1 magnitude earthquake that struck China’s Southwest Yunnan Province on Sunday afternoon has claimed the lives of nearly 600 civilians and injured about 2,400 more.
The Chinese government’s rescue efforts in this remote mountainous region have been well publicised and rightly commended, yet, for all their tireless actions in the wake of the crisis, it could be that their actions or lack thereof prior to quake that is their most telling contribution.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and local rescue groups have led the rescue efforts in the mostly underdeveloped Yunnan region, which have been hindered greatly by flooding due to recent rain storms and landslides that proceeded the quake. With reports of over 80,000 homes having collapsed and up to 230,000 civilians now displaced, the supplies, medical attention and temporary shelters needed for survivors are struggling to get to the more remote areas despite the rescuers best efforts, reported the state-owned China Daily newspaper.
While damage to infrastructure is inevitable with high magnitude earthquakes, China’s notoriously slack construction standards of buildings has heightened casualty rates in previous earthquakes, none more so than in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province left nearly 5 million people homeless and claimed over 80,000 lives, 5,000 of whom were schoolchildren who died when their shoddy school building collapsed in on them. The number of schools that crumbled so feebly during that quake, while government buildings remained standing, has been blamed on the corruption and mismanagement of local officials. These shortcomings at local governmental level, along with the swindling of donations by the China’s government-run Red Cross charity during the rescue operation, exposed broader issues within the internal running of the state.
Although the latest earthquake in Yunnan is not on the same scale in terms of casualties and destruction as Sichuan, it still could have been a case of history repeating itself. Reports from Yunnan claim that most homes destroyed were those of farmer’s huts made from wood and stone, yet China Daily released a report stating that in the Zhaotong area of Yunnan 134 schools collapsed as a result of the quake, which they have defended as being built prior to 2000. Fortunately, the quake hit during the school holidays, but it is hard not to feel in light of this revelation that the government’s incompetence and lack of diligence toward their citizen’s lives is as strong as it was six years ago in Sichuan.
The need for China to invest in schemes such as earthquake damage prevention is evident from a recent earthquake report that has recorded 15 earthquakes over a magnitude of 5.5 that have struck China in the past seven years. However, with the primary concern at the moment still focused on rescue efforts and the search for survivors, the contributing factors to this large loss of life will have to wait until the dust settles in Yunnan and a formal investigation rummages through the rubble for answers.