Empty cities: after the earthquake

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Feature Story - 2013-04-02
In 2008 the tragic Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan killed many and destroyed a vast number of homes. Five years later in the midst of reconstruction, and with dozens of unoccupied apartment blocks, villagers of Renhe, Jinhua near Shifang found themselves unable to return to their houses due to a nearby plant called Yingfeng Industries dumping huge phosphorus gypsum slagheaps into the nearby river.

Empty cities

There's a shantytown in Sichuan where many of the earthquake victims live, and an old lady was seen roasting meat on an open fire. Born and raised in the area, the 2008 earthquake destroyed the home that had been in her family for generations. Originally she planned to rebuild on the site of her former house, but yet five years have passed and she is still living in temporary accommodation.

In a nearby shantytown where many of the earthquake victims live, an old lady was seen roasting meat on an open fire. Born and raised in the area, the 2008 earthquake destroyed the home that had been in her family for generations. Originally she planned to rebuild on the site of her former house, but yet five years have passed and she is still living in temporary accommodation.

"I'm unable to move home due to the heavy pollution," said the old woman hopelessly. "Most of the villagers are the same. Of the eight families that resided here only one remains." She points to a nearby tree. "You see this tree? It has been dead for ten years. Since then, I've been trying to grow vegetables here but nothing ever grows in this polluted ground. The air is also terribly polluted, with smoke and dust always irritating our lungs," she said.

At this point her son interrupted to say since the operation of Yingfeng Industries began 24 years ago, they have been constantly living under the shadow of the plant's flue gas. The entire village has been forced to breathe in the factory exhaust. And on days with heavy rain or cloud, many locals experience a shortness of breath. "More and more people here are suffering bronchitis. The soot leads to colds, coughs and other chronic diseases," he mentions. Villagers also complain of soot that is being belched from the chimneys and reaches their housing, less than 100 meters away.

The old woman's son insisted that we go to the river to see for ourselves the pollution. Yingfeng Industries had dumped their gypsum slagheap without any reinforcement or anti-landslide facilities. We saw that it was more than 20 meters in height, and there were obvious signs it had been subject to landslides. "You see their slag heap is moving directly into the Shiting River, it's so close to the riverbed. Even before the earthquake on rainy days it would leech into the river," he said. Like sand, it was continuously shifting into the riverbed.

Five years on from the Wenchuan earthquakes, and though the houses have been rebuilt, these victims still wait for the day they can return home. Villagers reside in Renhe, if not in their houses at least on the land, in the hope they can one day rebuild their lives here, and see a reversal of the ecological damage done. But much like the roof tiles that are scattered everywhere along the pathways, there is a feeling that perhaps this village is irreparable.

Image: Earthquake resettlement housing next to Yingfeng Chemical Plant has been left vacant for several years as local residents do not want to move back to such a polluted area. © Wen Wenyu / Greenpeace

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