Quakes rock poverty-stricken Chinese provinces

A series of earthquakes shook a mountainous region in southwestern China on Sept. 7, leaving at least 81 people dead, more than 800 injured and hundreds of thousands homeless.

Two 5.6-magnitude earthquakes struck late morning local time near the border of Guizhou and Yunnan provinces. Up to 30,000 houses were damaged, according toXinhua News Agency. There are reports that roads to outlying towns and villages are impassable, making it hard for rescuers and aid groups to reach those areas.

President Hu Jintao, who is in Russia for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, has ordered the release of aid for the affected areas, the state news agency says. It adds that Chinese authorities have sent tents, jackets and blankets. The Red Cross said it has also mobilized the delivery of similar supplies.

China has yet to issue an appeal for international aid, as of Monday.

The two quakes are significantly weaker than the 7.6-magnitude earthquakes that hit Costa Rica on Sept. 5 and the Philippines on Aug. 31, but caused more damage because the epicenters were shallower — at only 9 kilometers deep — and struck on land. The epicenters of the quakes in Costa Rica and the Philippines were both deeper and a few miles off the coast.

The relatively extensive damage and loss of lives can also be attributed to the high population density and vulnerability to landslide of the affected areas, especially the hardest-hit Yiliang county, The Associated Press notes. Several parts of China were named among the world’s most landslide-prone areas in a recent U.K. study.

Houses and other infrastructures in Yunnan and Guizhou — which are among China’s least developed provinces — are made of light materials that are prone to collapse, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has noted. Poor infrastructure was similarly blamed for the death toll — at least 250 people — of the twin earthquakes that hit Iran on Aug. 11.

This is not the first time a Chinese region suffered from extensive damage following an earthquake. The Western province of Qinghai suffered a magnitude-7.1 earthquake on April 14, 2010, while nearby Sichuan was reduced to rubble following a magnitude-8.0 earthquake in 2008. Both quakes prompted an influx of international assistance.

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributes to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.