China's quake survivors get temporary relief with UNHCR tents

News Stories, 4 June 2008

© UNHCR photo
Survivors of the Sichuan earthquake are happy to receive a tent from UNHCR.

DUJIANGYAN, China, June 4 (UNHCR) Some 55,000 earthquake survivors in China now have a roof over their heads after the UN refugee agency's recent donation of tents for the worst-hit areas. Another 20,000 are expected to receive tents by mid-June.

The May 12 earthquake, with its epicentre in western China's Sichuan province, measured eight on the Richter scale and left some 70,000 people dead, more than 373,000 injured and nearly 18,000 missing as of June 3. More than 15 million survivors have been relocated to other sites, while about 4.8 million are homeless.

UNHCR, which has worked in China since 1982, responded immediately by contributing US$60,000 to the relief effort and has also donated 15,000 tents to house some 75,000 people. China is one of the world's main producers of tents, but the scale of the destruction has caused a shortage in the country.

With Chinese government help, 2,000 UNHCR tents were airlifted to the quake area and 9,000 sent by train from Shanghai and Shenzhen in the east, and Tianjin in the north. By mid-June, another 4,000 tents will be produced and sent to Sichuan's neighbouring Gansu province, which was also hit by the quake and aftershocks.

"UNHCR is not usually mandated to respond to natural disasters, but we couldn't stand by and watch as so many people suffered," said Lam Naijit, UNHCR's senior regional protection officer in Beijing, adding that this was the biggest cooperation between UNHCR and the Chinese government in 30 years.

Veerapong Vongvarotai, UNHCR's Beijing-based regional representative, said he had visited Chengdu and seen the devastation and suffering. He said he was "very impressed by the dedication and effectiveness of the Chinese authorities and soldiers. The soldiers are not only helping with the rescue, cleaning up the ruins, but also helping with the field work, as this is the agriculture season."

The first batch of 11,000 tents is being distributed in cities close to the epicentre of the earthquake, including Aba, Deyang and Guangyuan.

Another heavily-damaged area that received UNHCR tents was Xiang-ee township in Dujiangyan county. More than 400 people died in the quake there. Almost all the buildings, mainly simple houses made of bricks, were demolished. The whole population of 16,000 people lost their homes.

Before the earthquake, Qin Lifu, 62, lived in an extended household consisting of his own family, his 88-year-old father, and the families of his three brothers. Luckily, most of them were working in the field when the quake struck, and only one family member was seriously injured. Their houses were ruined.

Qin made a simple shelter with trunks and leaves until the family received two tents from the government days later. They moved what remained of the furniture and electronic appliances and put them in a simple sitting room covered by some plastic sheets overhead. "It's leaking in the rain," he said.

In the past three weeks, Xiang-ee has received 2,300 tents from the government. Still, about half of the population was sleeping in makeshift shelters when UNHCR delivered more than 900 additional tents there.

Vulnerable groups like the elderly, children and sick people were prioritized during the distribution of the tents. "All officials are sleeping in the open air, including the mayor," Xiang-ee Communist Party Secretary Zhou Xiaolin said. "Everyone is looking at us, we will be the last to move into the tents."

Qin's family has just received a tent from UNHCR. He had to sign for it in the registration book at the County Relief Items Management Centre. His neighbours helped to raise the tent to his shoulder at 41.5 kilogrammes, the tent is heavy and can accommodate up to five people.

It will take time for Qin to erect his new tent; he will first have to clear away the debris. Impressed by the model he saw at the government office, he said, "Your tents are very good! Thanks to everyone who helped us."

By Song Jing in Dujiangyan, China