The School of Quake Reconstruction

May 15, 2011

Paul Procee and John Scales China Daily

A team from the World Bank's Wenchuan Earthquake Reconstruction Project, together with teachers, county officials and a sea of excited schoolchildren, had the honor of attending yet another opening of a school recently. The new school, financed by the World Bank, is in Hui county, Gansu province, and replaced an earthquake-damaged building.

Nothing about the day the earth shook, shattering lives and buildings three years ago, could be more different from today for the children. Today is a day of remembrance, the third anniversary of the Wenchuan earthquake that destroyed large areas of Sichuan province and parts of Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. This is a moment to pause and reflect. But this is also a moment to remember the remarkable resilience of the people in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi and the achievements of earthquake reconstruction efforts.

The achievements in terms of recovery and reconstruction have been remarkable. About 90 percent of the planned reconstruction is complete, and the rest will be completed by September this year. About 1.8 million rural and urban homes have been built. In many towns, basic services such as water and sanitation have not only been restored, but also upgraded, improving the environment and quality of life.

Schools, such as the one in Hui county, and hospitals, built in compliance with the latest earthquake standards, have reopened and damaged enterprises resumed production. Most importantly, economic growth has resumed and life for many has returned to normal.

The Chinese government has made concerted efforts, guided by a comprehensive reconstruction master plan, to reconstruct damaged infrastructure and help rebuild the lives and livelihoods of the quake survivors. As part of the reconstruction efforts, the government launched an innovative and successful program of twinning economically developed provinces and municipalities with severely damaged counties.

This program required provinces not only to allocate 1 percent of their annual budget for three years for reconstruction activities, but also to undertake rebuilding responsibilities themselves. This process bypassed the intermediary bureaucracy and created a healthy competition which rewarded the donor provinces and municipalities that could rebuild fast and adeptly with official recognition.
But challenges remain. It is, therefore, important to ensure that the newly built and better-quality infrastructure will be maintained and operated properly so that they serve the people for years to come.

Bricks and mortar are not the end but part of the means to achieving the ultimate goals of public health, education, transport accessibility and safe drinking water. Additional financial resources and trained personnel will be needed to operate and maintain these facilities. And continued support from provincial and national governments will be needed to ensure the reconstruction efforts endure. Moreover, building partnerships with the private sector could help introduce better know-how, reduce costs and optimize operations.

People's livelihoods have been rebuilt along with the infrastructure. But dealing with the human, economic and physical losses that the disaster caused will take time. Many people and small businesses, especially farmers, had to borrow money to help rebuild what was lost in the quake.
As if a major earthquake was not enough, the disaster-hit areas have since been battered by storms and floods. As such, some people and businesses struggling with debt find themselves slipping even further down the economic ladder. There is room for developing innovative risk transfer mechanisms and insurance schemes to help individuals, private enterprises and the public sector to better cope with the consequences of natural disasters.

These market-based mechanisms can help share the burden, expedite transfer of funds, especially to individuals, and adequately allocate risks and the cost of rebuilding to individuals, the private sector and the government. They can also help divert investments from high-risk areas by applying higher premiums to floodplains, and quake- and landslide-prone areas.

The World Bank is a proud partner of the Chinese government in the post-disaster reconstruction efforts. We have witnessed great accomplishments in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi. The reconstruction approach taken after the Wenchuan quake has taught us a number of important lessons that we will share with other countries and projects.

First, it is very important to have strong and pro-active leadership at the national level to coordinate national and international support in disaster-hit areas. The government has provided that leadership and, in the process, implemented a wide variety of complementary and reinforcing policies to help direct investments and support recovery efforts.

It is important, too, to work closely with local governments and agencies, which are ultimately responsible for maintaining the investments and operating the facilities.

The memory of that day, as it should, will remain with us for a long time to come. But three years on we have cause to celebrate, to celebrate the rebirth of one school after another.

Paul Procee is the project manager of World Bank's Wenchuan Earthquake Reconstruction Project and a senior infrastructure specialist and disaster risk management coordinator for China. John Scales is China transport coordinator, World Bank Office, Beijing, and was the task team leader of Wenchuan Earthquake Reconstruction Project.