CHENGDU — Two years after an earthquake killed 196 people in Lushan County, southwest China’s Sichuan province, local officials have told how they are rebuilding villages using a more patient and democratic model that has been adopted with other Chinese quakes.
Locals have formed committees to have input into how their villages are rebuilt. Authorities have identified spots that are susceptible to quake damage and built more quake-resistant buildings. And Chinese and foreign experts have redesigned villages, encouraging their inhabitants to alleviate poverty by pursuing new business opportunities including tourism.
Authorities planned to take three years to rebuild Lushan. That compares to a five-year reconstruction plan after the far more devastating quake which claimed more than 80,000 lives around Sichuan’s Wenchuan County in 2008.
“We would rather take it slow and make a scientific overall plan, based on people’s needs, integrating reconstruction with efforts to upgrade the mode of economic development in the quake zone,” said Wang Dongming, Communist Party chief of Sichuan.
Jin Zhaoxing, a 70-year-old living in Caoping Village, heads one of the locals’ committees through which they are involved in choosing building locations and pushing for fair prices for quality materials.
“The contractors call me a troublemaker. But it is my job to make trouble for them,” said Jin, who retired from his job at a hydro-power plant some 10 years ago. He lost his house in the quake, as did 270 other families in Caoping.
Regardless of weather conditions, he appears on the construction site every day, harangueing workers about every detail from concrete quality to the buildings’ appearance.
“I have my new home here and I’m aware of the villagers’ expectations. I can’t let them down,” Jin said.
While soliciting opinions from these committees, Sichuan is aiming to reshape villages, especially remote ones, to exploit tourism.
Inhabitants of Snow Mountain Village in Muping Town of Baoxing County used to make a living by growing corn, wheat and potatoes, but their fields were largely covered by landslides.
Teaming up with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation and the local government, Boston-headquartered architecture firm ZNA took charge of designing a new Snow Mountain.
Wang Xu, executive principal of the company’s China office, and his team turned 25 of 100 homes into guesthouses. Fifty households will continue with agriculture, to provide organic food for the village and guests. And the other 25 households will provide guest services such as laundry and housekeeping.
“Architecture is about people’s lives. It means more than a concrete building, and it really affects ways of living, which is particularly true for a village like Snow Mountain that is seeking revival,” said Wang.
“Several companies have asked us to work with them to develop ecotourism in our village,” said Li De’an, Snow Mountain’s Party chief.
Balancing modern architectural concepts and the culture of villages is a challenge for the architects.
Wang’s team spent countless days and nights discussing how to meet villagers’ requests while achieving standards that will attract guests.
For safety reasons, the new houses were made of concrete instead of wood, traditionally preferred by villagers. But the remnants of their former homes have been used for decoration. Bamboo chips coat the walls and cobblestone paths snake to front doors — these touches give villagers the comfort of familiarity.
“My new house does feel like home, only it’s safer and prettier,” said Li Defang, one of those resettled.
Another peculiarly Chinese consideration for Wang is feng shui, the ancient philosophical system under which geomantic omens are held to affect the fortunes of an abode.
“Feng shui says the new houses should be situated in the north with their doors facing south, not facing a tree or a corner. We have followed these suggestions,” he said.
Despite the patient approach, reconstruction is going to plan, according to Yang Zhuang, Party chief of Ya’an City, which administers the quake-hit area. He estimates that the three-year project will cost more than 87.6 billion yuan ($14.14 billion).
The quake left more than 100,000 families homeless. By the end of last year, more than 90,000 rural families had been rehoused, while new homes had been built for nearly 45 percent of those in urban areas, said Yang.
Around 75 percent of public facilities including schools and medical service buildings have been completed. “Students are all expected to move into their new school buildings when fall semester begins in September,” according to Yang.
The 7.0-magnitude Lushan quake struck on April 20, 2013.
(Yang Yi, Dong Xiaohong, Yu Li and Liu Shilei also contributed to the story.)