/ 21 May 2008

China scrambles to help five million displaced by quake

China scrambled on Wednesday to deliver tents and other essential materials to the five million people made homeless by last week’s earthquake, as international aid began to flow in.

With hope virtually extinguished of finding more survivors amid the devastated towns and villages of mountainous Sichuan province, soldiers and relief workers focused on the desperate plight of those displaced.

Nine days after the 8 magnitude quake, the official number of people killed is 40 075 but tens of thousands of others are still missing, raising fears the death toll could yet soar dramatically.

China has deployed a massive military force into Sichuan and their initial campaign to find people under the rubble has now largely transformed into looking after the five million who lost their homes in the disaster.

”We don’t have anything. We don’t know where we’re going to find money to rebuild our village,” said Ma Jingsuan (52) who was one of 7 000 people seeking refuge among a sea of blue tents on the fringes of Sichuan’s Mianzhu city.

”We’re entirely dependent on the government.”

In scenes being repeated across many cities in Sichuan, bulldozers were levelling ground to set up camps.

The most pressing priorities are providing shelter and staving off disease, and Premier Wen Jiabao has ordered 900 000 tents to be sent to the disaster area over the next month, and up to one million makeshift structures by August.

China has faced some criticism for not allowing in specialist search and rescue teams from overseas immediately after the quake, and then only allowing in small contingents from a few countries.

However China has been more open in the campaign to look after the displaced, and plane loads of aid from countries as diverse as the Ukraine, Russia, the United States and Singapore have landed in south-west China.

That international effort was ramping up, after China appealed on Tuesday for tents and other supplies from within China and overseas.

Saudi Arabia has sent more than 85 000 tents and 500 000 blankets, on top of a cash donation of $50-million, China’s state-run press reported on Wednesday.

Treating the nearly 250 000 people injured has become an overwhelming task, and the official Xinhua news agency reported that the German Red Cross was sending over a mobile hospital to operate in Sichuan.

It would be capable of accommodating 120 patients and be the first facility of its kind contributed by any country.

A Japanese medical team of more than 20 doctors, nurses and other experts also left on Tuesday for China to help victims.

”Let us work as a team so that we can save as many people as we can from their pain and suffering,” team leader Kazuhiro Tajiri said before they left.

Meanwhile, China’s health authorities have stepped up efforts to ward off outbreaks of disease, amid concerns that any tainting of water supplies could lead to potentially fatal epidemics of diarrhoea and cholera.

The health ministry has sent 3 500 specialists in epidemic control to Sichuan.

There were no reports on Wednesday of any more miracle survival tales.

On Tuesday, a 60-year-old woman who survived on rainwater and a man fed via a straw were the last people pulled out of the rubble alive.

Despite the overwhelming odds against finding any more survivors, rescue workers saved the woman, Wang Youqun, nearly 200 hours after the earthquake.

Wang was in a temple in the town of Pengzhou when the earthquake hit survived by drinking rainwater, Xinhua said.

In the other case, rescuers saved Ma Yuanjiang after a 30-hour dig that included chiselling through 10 slabs of cement, Xinhua said.

The team fed the 31-year-old sugary water through a straw as they broke through the rubble of a power plant where he was an executive, Xinhua said.

Ma was able to speak, eat and drink small amounts as he was rushed to hospital but his left forearm had to be amputated, it said. – AFP