Sep 28, 2012 06:27 PM

Living on Dangerous Ground


Multiple earthquakes and a series of landslides resulted in the deaths of 81 people in Yunnan in early September

(Beijing) – Fractures had long plagued the rocky mountainside next to Huang Daihong's home. When an earthquake jolted Luozehe County in Yunnan Province, Huang watched a large black boulder release a shower of stones that instantly killed her neighbor.

The September 7 quake that struck Zhaotong City at 11 a.m. had a magnitude of 5.7 on the Richter scale, and an aftershock measured 5.6. All told, 81 people were killed.

The big black boulder remains near Huang's home, a reminder to her and her neighbors of the dangers that go with living in the area.

253 Hazard Areas

Luozehe County has a range of geographical formations. At the center of the county is a village that spreads across a valley with the Luozhe River running through it. Most homes built in the area use supporting pillars that stand against steep hills.

Cai Jihong, an elementary teacher, said that when the quake struck, cracks suddenly began to appear on the school's walls. He immediately rushed out with students in his arms. Seconds later, the school building was rubble. 

In the north of the county, seven houses near hillsides were crushed, survivors said. They also said children at a kindergarten were killed.

Huangpu Gang, chief of the Yunnan Provincial Seismological Bureau, said many homes in the area were poorly built. In addition, he said the geographical features of the area also make it prone to disaster.

However, unlike the Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in 2008, claiming more than 90,000 lives, most of the victims in Luozehe were killed by falling rocks instead of collapsed buildings.

Since the beginning of 2012, local authorities have identified 253 hazard areas that have a high risk of landslides, hill collapses, mudslides and subsidence. However, despite efforts to step up warning measures, experts say several risks remain unaddressed.

In another village, people resorted to faith in response to the disaster. The community collected donations to build a carved Buddha statue in front of a rock overhang. However, a car-sized piece of rock from the overhang later crushed two local villagers' houses.

Hollow Ground

Local mining has further exacerbated the instability of the ground in the area. Luozhe's main coal mine areas have been a source of hazard since the late 1980s. Bulletins dating back to the early 1990s are posted on the main street to warn of landslides.

At a local cement factory, an aftershock claimed three lives on September 10. Trucks and cars were overturned by falling rocks. The manager of the plant said the factory was flooded by broken water pipes, resulting in damage estimated at 30 million yuan.

Despite the area's poverty, Luozehe is known for its rich mineral deposits, with a coal reserve estimated at 240 million tons. The area's lead and zinc ore deposits are among the largest in China.

Cai Jihong has lived in Luozehe for 43 years and he remembers when residents began to use basic equipment to extract lead from the raw ore in the 1990s. The local economy began to boom, and houses, restaurants and small mineral processing plants were built along the river.

But over time, the mountainsides yielded less and less, while natural disasters increased.

"We understand the mines brought us economic benefits but the mountains were hollowed out," a local farmer said. "But there was no other way."

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