Earthquakes: consider the villages

— by ShiyuQian —

On August 3rd 2014, a 6.5 magnitude earthquake struck Yunnan province (southwest China) at a depth of 12 kilometres. 

The epicentre of the quake was Longtoushan Town, Ludian County, causing the collapse of a significant number of buildings and the fracturing of roads. By August 13th, 617 people in Ludian had died in this horrible tragedy and 3143 people were seriously injured (ifeng, 2014).

Actually, this earthquake is not the first to occur in Ludian. Located in the infamous seismic zone in southwest China, Ludian has experienced several earthquakes since 2003. However, these had caused the deaths of only a few people and little damage to their buildings until now. In spite of this history – and being fully aware that they lived near a fault line – Ludian residents had never imagined that what was waiting for them on that fateful day. It practically destroyed everything: their village was gone, their houses were in ruins and their fellow villages – friends and family – had disappeared instantly.


 View of LuDian after earthquake

Housing safety?
Due to imminent threat of earthquakes in this region, ten years ago the government of Yunnan realized the importance of housing safety, especially for areas facing severe financial hardships in building strong houses. In Ludian, for instance, the daily earnings of aro0und 60% of county’s population is less than $1 – below UN poverty standards. In addition, the per capita GDP of Yunnan province is far below the average level of the whole China.

To the people in this poverty-stricken area, building houses that they can ‘live in’ has already been a big challenge. Ensuring housing safety for them usually means huge costs resulting in extremely heavy financial burdens. For instance, a house that could reach the standard of anti-seismic for a normal family to live in could cost over 100,000 RMB (US$16,300). It is clear that building such a house for a family which is able to earn around 4,000 RMB per year is scarcely possible.

Although in recent years the government has decided to provide financial support for housing safety to the families living in local counties, what the poor families actually could receive is only around 5,000 to 10,000 RMB, used for reducing the burden of building houses. Facing the extremely high cost of anti-seismic houses, the support from the government could only act limited help and can’t fundamentally change the situation that ‘people just can’t afford it’.

Instead of concrete and rebar, the main material for building their houses are soil, rock, wood, and tiles. In Chinese this kind of simple widely-used house is called “Tupi Fang” (adobe house). Compared with the traditional anti-seismic buildings with complex structure that are made of modern materials, it is obvious that adobe house costs less, even requires less labor to build it… but it has far more limited structural integrity in severe conditions.

Although most of the houses lack basic facilities for sanitation, the villagers have lived here for years – since their ancestors’ time. Did these adobe houses protect those poor villagers during the earthquake? Sadly, the truth is that these houses killed them. Now in Ludian, millions of the houses were destroyed by the shaking of the ground, and villagers had nowhere to hide but being buried by heavy roofs and walls.


Adobe house

Time to truly care
After the earthquake, apart from the rescue efforts, the plan for rebuilding the villages has become the focus of the local government. There is no doubt that with the direct financial and technical support from the central government and other parts of China, their new houses at least would not be adobe houses anymore: The strength of the material and the structure must reach the requirements of anti-seismic buildings regulations as well as construction technology guidelines. Obviously, Ludian has gathered enough attention from both the central government and society of China, which may positively influence its home rebuilding and further development.

However, for other similar poor areas of China, there remains a serious question for our society: have we ever truly cared about their living and housing problems?

It can be seen that the regular financial and technical support from the government is limited, as well as the attention and care that these counties receive. This is actually is the condition that Ludian used to be in. It might be strange to say that it was the earthquake that helped them out of the dilemma of housing problem, but sadly they had to endure an earthquake to gain this priority. The truth is that the government’s alert to this problem and its policy for local counties to “start to be care and supported more”, originated in the Wenchuan earthquake, Sichuan province in 2008 where government statistics state that 90,000 people were killed and 375,000 people were injured by falling debris and building collapse.

So on one hand, there is no doubt that building new anti-seismic buildings and improving facilities is the main effect of these natural disasters. On the other hand, it is ridiculous to wait for lives to be lost to initiate the preventative measures against the worst excesses of an earthquake . This financial cost-benefit analysis exactly reflects the dilemma of the poor counties.

Now is it the time to truly care the counties? As many of us enjoy the convenience and safety of living in cities as well as promoting economy growth and creating new record GDP groth, the development of counties seemed to have been forgotten by the residents in cities. Furthermore, the population moving flow from counties to cities has caused numerous problems in local counties and provinces, including the decrease of the labor force and the increase of difficulties on economy growth. The ignorance and prejudice shown to the countryside, especially to those which are poor and weak, has caused problems that the whole society has to pay the price. Helping and supporting the countryside is not supposed to only appear after a quake. All the responsibilities of an improved economy – which includes the responsibility to improve the living and housing conditions of villagers – are supposed to be taken by the whole society, instead of only relying on the government.

As one of the residents born in 90s in a city, the reality of county life is like a story for me and my generation. However, the widely-used adobe construction techniques are a part of common memory for many elderly people of my grandparents generation. Time changes, and many of us has already got used to the fabulous well-designed architecture in cities. In spite of this, in the same time, the common use of adobe building still exist in many remote poor counties, which seems are out of the sight of most city residents. There is a saying that “Contemporary architects are only working for the wealthiest people in the world, covering around 1% of the world population.” Whether this saying is true or not, the ignorance of the county people has already caused problems, at least this has occurred in China. Why shouldn’t the architects in China enlarge their range of clients and design for the poor areas? Why can’t those villagers have the right to live in strong buildings that could at least survive in the earthquake and live in a good living environment? The dilemma is still reserved for our society and architects.



This essay draws on data from ifeng, 2014,