Is China ready for the next quake?

Injured people receive medical treatment at the People’s Hospital in Lushan County, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, on April 20, 2013. (Jiang Hongjing/Xinhua)

Nearly a week after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Ya’an City, southwest China’s Sichuan Province, the public may be growing tired of emotional rescue and survival stories.

But now that the aftershocks have mostly died down following Saturday’s quake that killed nearly 200 people, it’s time for the people to seriously reflect on a challenging question: is the country ready for the next seismic disaster?

The recent relief work of the Chinese government and citizens featured many commendable elements, including prompt rescue work, improved material support such as food, water and tents, and the orderly participation of trained volunteers and qualified non-governmental organizations.

Though rescue and relief work deserves applause, it does nothing to obscure the unpleasant scenes of quake-hit houses now reduced to piles of rubble.

According to a press conference held by the State Council Information Office on Thursday, more than 250,000 houses were destroyed in the powerful quake on April 20.

Construction safety became a point of public concern in May 2008, when a devastating earthquake hit Wenchuan County, Sichuan Province. Numerous structures, including houses and school facilities, collapsed, and over 80,000 people were reported dead or missing. Though located more than 200 kilometers from Wenchuan, Ya’an was also affected by the 2008 quake.

The piles of rubble in Ya’an have revived that public concern, and people are discussing whether their houses could withstand another earthquake.

With the government’s relief efforts already shifting toward reconstruction, the safety of housing structures must be prioritized, with special attention being given to close supervision over project design and construction quality.

Whether the rebuilt houses withstand future tremors will be a major test for the government. Online critics have already cast doubt on how many houses rebuilt in Ya’an after the deadlier 8.0-magnitude quake in Wenchuan survived the comparatively milder tremor on April 20.

The debris in Ya’an also highlighted another worrisome truth: houses in rural areas are especially vulnerable to quake damage.

Over 70 percent of the 250,000 collapsed houses were located in rural areas, according to the State Council Information Office.

It was also reported that in some villages and townships in Ya’an, more than 90 percent of houses were damaged or destroyed in the quake.

Traditionally, as private properties, houses in villages are built by those who plan to live in them. This usually means that the structures are not equipped with quake-resistant technology and that construction is done without proper supervision, partly due to a lack of safety awareness and partly due to a lack of money.

Rural residents, especially low-income rural residents, need both professional guidance and economic input from the government to help them build safe houses.

Since the Ya’an earthquake, Chinese leaders have repeatedly underlined the importance of saving lives when guiding rescue efforts. Their orders reflect the government’s consistent “people first” policy.

As the world’s second-largest economy, China now enjoys more resources — and faces more pressure — to divert more efforts toward improving people’s living conditions.

In regards to quake relief work, safe shelters that can reduce death tolls mean much more than relief efforts carried out following a major disaster. Ensuring that people have strong, stable living quarters would be evidence of true respect for life.

Quick rescue response, the public’s enthusiasm for volunteering and the efficient and orderly coordination of relief efforts are all important. But China will be prepared for the next quake only if the country’s houses can stand firm.

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