Death Toll Continues to Mount

The death toll continues to mount in the aftermath of the earthquake that has struck much of China:

Rescuers finally reached some the worst hit regions of China today as it became clear that more than 50,000 people were dead or missing after a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province.

The official death toll now stands at 14,866 but while the army and emergency workers battle to reach isolated areas and scour mile after mile of rubble the scale of the disaster continues to rise.

Li Chengyun, the vice governor of Sichuan, told the official Xinhua news agency that almost 26,000 people were buried in collapsed buildings and a further 14,051 were missing in his province alone.

Most recently there are reports of problems with a dam:

HANWANG, China – Thousands of Chinese soldiers rushed on Wednesday to repair a dam badly cracked by the country’s massive earthquake, while rescuers arrived for the first time in the epicenter of the disaster.

China’s top economic planning body said that the quake had damaged 391 mostly small dams. It left “extremely dangerous” cracks in the Zipingpu Dam upriver from the earthquake-hit city of Dujiangyan and some 2,000 soldiers were sent to repair the damage, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Xinhua said Dujiangyan would be “swamped” if major problems emerged at the dam.

He Biao, the director of the Aba Disaster Relief headquarters in northern Sichuan province, said there were also concerns over dams closer to the epicenter.

“Currently, the most dangerous problems are several reservoirs near Wenchuan,” he said, according to a transcript on the CCTV Web site.

“There are already serious problems with the Tulong Reservoir on the Min River. It may collapse. If that happens, it would affect several power plants below and be extremely dangerous,” he said.

Peter Smith, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, is asking a question that goes to the heart of the problems in China: why did so many schools collapse?

In the wake of Monday’s 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, some international experts are questioning the adequacy of the region’s building codes and construction practices.

Juyuan Middle School, about 60 miles from the epicenter, was one of several schools that collapsed Monday. So far rescuers have recovered more than 60 bodies from the school, the official Xinhua News Agency said. But there was little word on the rest of the nearly 900 teenagers who were believed to be trapped under their collapsed school building.

Some students managed to escape, while at least one was pulled out of the wreckage alive Tuesday morning. At least 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing after another school collapsed in Mianyang city, about 100 miles northeast of the epicenter, Xinhua reported.

Other schools closer to the epicenter also toppled, although specifics were not available because the area was generally inaccessible.

Earthquake engineers say that constructing a building to resist a quake of magnitude 7 or 8 is possible, but is often considered cost prohibitive, adding 7 to 8 percent in costs.

“Earthquake resistance is really more workmanship, than material,” Amr Elnashai, director of the Mid-America Earthquake Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says.

Some blame the situation on official corruption:

BEIJING, May 14 (Reuters) – Corruption and lax enforcement of stringent building codes could be important factors behind many of the collapsed buildings in China’s worst earthquake in decades, an expert said on Wednesday.

Monday’s 7.9 magnitude tremor levelled factories, homes, schools and hospitals across China’s southwest Sichuan province, killing nearly 15,000 people. The toll is expect to rise since many thousands are still trapped under rubble.

“Enforcement costs money and local officials at many levels are involved,” Ashley Howlett, a partner with Jones Day, who heads the Greater China construction practice, told Reuters in an interview.

“There is a lot of corruption,” said Howlett, who is involved with all aspects of the design and construction process and has written a book on China’s construction laws.

“China’s building codes are very clear,” he said. “If a similar earthquake hit near Beijing I don’t think you would see this kind of damage.”

His comments echo similar complaints aimed at China in the wake of recent product safety and healthcare scares that alarmed consumers around the world.

I suspect the problem is even more basic. It’s not for a lack of money: China is holding nearly a half trillion dollars worth of U. S. Treasury bonds. Why don’t they spend it? I think it’s because of a widespread belief in Chinese officialdom that the people don’t really matter.

China was once the richest, most powerful country in the world. Its closed society and clinging to outmoded traditions and practices has caused it to fall drastically behind.

This is a point that I’ve made before and to which I will no doubt return: China’s economic growth can’t continue indefinitely without the development of an internal market. And that, in turn, will mean that the people and their needs and wants must matter.

3 comments… add one
  • I just heard someone back from 10 years in Russia, give a same opinion. His comment was poetic as well as telling. “People”, he said, “watch the government move and change about, the same way we watch foliage.”

    As a citizen of Russia, you have no impact. It does what it does.

    Fortunate, we are.

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