Recently, I had the opportunity to work along side with the Kunming team from Habitat for Humanity (HFH) in helping with a resettlement aid and assistance project called “Delivering Warmth and Love in Yunnan”. I joined the local team to help document the hardest hit villages in the Shuimo mountains in Ludian County as part of their raising awareness and funds to provide furnaces for those most in need. Shuimo is the poorest township in the
Yunnan Province, thus the reason for HFH’s focus in this area.
This usually serene cluster of mountain villages carried on as usual where village life was simple, but on August 3, 2014 an 6.5 earthquake struck the surrounding villages around Shuimo town, in Ludian County along with 100’s of traumatizing aftershocks continued for weeks afterward changed all of this. Looking down on Longtoushan township
from the hill above, one would suspect regular daily life occurring; Far from it as this town served as the Epicenter of the quake and as you can imagine, was the hardest hit. It’s not difficult to understand why there were so many casualties of both homes and human life as the traditional ways of construction in these parts never planned for such a powerful force of nature.
Almost 3 months have passed since the quake and after the Government, private corporations, many NGOs and individual donors have been helping in every way
possible. Amongst many other survival goods, blue colored tents were and are still being distributed to those in need of shelter. As you drive along the winding roads, looking down around the hills and valley’s, you can easily spot the hundreds of tents against a normally green and golden backdrop. This only tells you of the magnitude the quake had on its residents. Access is a huge issue. Traveling from village to village on extremely bumpy, narrow, not to mention dangerous dirt/muddy roads, only hampers the abilities to get supplies up to them quickly and efficiently. This winter, when the dirt roads turn to mud, snow and worst of all black ice, will only be more problematic for any access, let alone retrofit and reconstruction efforts. During my visit, I experienced firsthand both dry and muddy road conditions; I must say, it was a bit unnerving to feel our 4-wheel drive Range Rover slide uncontrollably in the thick clay-like mud from the mornings heavy rainfall as it inched ever so close towards a rail-less cliff. I was sure glad our driver was the vice-Mayor of Shuimo as he traverses these roads quite often, but even
then, this can be a determent out of mere familiarity, if you know what I mean.
Like most mountain communities, there’s no shortage of school aged children; many families with 2 or more. One family we visited had 4 children with ages ranging from 4 to 10 years old. Late in the afternoon, we saw school aged children walking along the roads as they made their way home from the day at school. They must now compete (along these roads) with heavy machinery as rebuilding has begun at the fastest pace and available manpower as possible. One thing they cannot control or slow down is the upcoming winter. Winter is quite harsh in these parts averaging around 0*C often getting down as low as -15*C in the higher elevations. It’s a race against time to build at least a portion of their homes so they can
escape the cold and out of their makeshift tent dwellings that have served as home for these past few months. These are the lucky ones. For many others though, time is not in their favor as they’ll likely spend the long winter under tents. With this, keeping warm will be a factor. The elderly and the very young, in particular, will be of foremost concern.
In the main section of town, there were pieces of paper glued up on a wall detailing the families who were affected, what type of damage sustained, the type or level of assistance they are given along with other information about overall
status. Doing a quick account, there were over 1000 families needing help the most. Meaning, they are in need of rebuilding or some sort of retrofitting. All of which are currently living in tents. As you can imagine, during wintertime, keeping warm will be of chief concern.
Despite all of the hardships and loss they’ve endured since the August quake, what astounded me was their cordial demeanor. Smiles all around with every visit to different families. Perhaps it was because they were told that we were there to help and photographing the area and people was a necessity to help promote awareness and more aid to the area or the fact that I was introduced as “the American”, that, I’ll never know. I can only go off of past experience in non-relief times in other areas throughout China where the welcoming response (mostly) was just the same.
Traditional buildings were made of adobe clay (dirt basically) mixed with a small amount of gravel along with wooden beams to serve as structural integrity for the roof lines and upper floors – quite the ingenious construction of the time, but certainly not planning for such strong earthquakes as the one that recently hit. For those structures that are half-standing, you can see just how powerful the tremor was as it shook them from side-to-side crumbling them to rubble and returning them back to a pile of dirt. The walls, both interior and exterior are about the same thickness at around a meter or so, even still, they were no match for the violent movement of the earth. Today, many new homes are using re-enforced rebar and Cinderblocks foregoing the traditional materials for (hopefully) safer homes that will withstand one of Mother Nature’s worst offerings.
In meeting and touring homes with a few of the “luckier ones” to have been
affected, I was introduced to Mr. Zhao and his wife. Their home was completely destroyed and haven’t started to rebuild just yet as they are awaiting the scarce manpower and expertise. There is another structure next door for which they shared with his brother and had sustained substantial damage as the roof and upper floor had caved in. Across from these structures is a makeshift tarp covered open aired tent where they have moved all of their belongings to. It serves as living room and kitchen as they sleep in one of the tents nearby.
Another couple was just started laying the foundation to build a new home next to their existing one; they too are currently living in a tent as their home is structurally unsafe. Although they still have all of their belongings inside, it is only used during the day for cooking and storage – sleeping inside is considered unsafe and I’m sure memories of the quake are still with them as well. It is likely that they will be in the tent throughout the winter as well.
Along one of the “main roads” at the plateau, was lined with the all to familiar
blue tents. There had to have been 20 to 30 all in a row flanking each side of the road – all inhabitants are said to be from the Wulipai village a few kilometers away. They have been displaced here because their hillside village was completely destroyed not only by the earthquake itself, but because the ground underneath them gave way in many parts of the village. The entire village was declared unsafe and unlivable and deemed a potential landslide area. From what I understand, the surrounding land is owned by the ethnic groups themselves, so finding a land for one family much less an entire village will take time; much more time then the harsh winter will allow. An elderly couple was sitting in front of their tent telling us about his village and how they don’t know what the future holds for them and for now, they’re just accepting what they have right now and trust that the Government will take care of them in the end. What was most amazing, during his story-telling, both continued to smile as they had a glimmer of hope in their eyes for better things to come. Truly amazing outlook on such a tragic situation.
Even though my part of the project lasted only a couple of days, I was touched by the human spirit of hopefulness of a brighter future amidst all of the destruction around them. Bright smiles everywhere I went. It didn’t matter whether it was the
elderly or children. In a few areas of various towns, playing with the kids was one of the highlights. With little language skills (Chinese that is), playing a quick game with a group of them was uplifting – for me definitely and for them I hope as well. They seemed to have accepted the situation and continue on as best as they can. I feel for these folks during these upcoming winter months. HFH is feverishly continuing their fund-raising efforts to supply each of the 1000 families in Shuimo with a combo heating and cooking stove that serve as both. It’s a pretty cool appliance that’s appears to be simple, but very effective. No donation is too small, if you’d like more information about how you can contribute, email me and I’ll put you in touch with the local HFH folks.