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December 23, 2009

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Quake-hit villagers rebuild their future with a green blueprint

THE devastation in Sichuan Province has given planners the chance to start reconstruction with a clean slate - opting to use solar energy, earthworms to purify water and farmhouses built of bamboo. Yuan Jian, Fei Liena, Yuan Ye and Yan Hao report.

In a green valley of Guangyuan city in southwest China's Sichuan Province, people are busily working to rebuild their homes, schools and hospitals, which were devastated during the May 12 earthquake last year.

In Malu Village in the valley, visitors could hardly recognize it used to be a place jolted by the deadly 8.0-magnitude earthquake. School buildings painted in pink and yellow, lines of vegetable greenhouses and new farmhouses stand on the mild slope of mountains.

Together with the rebuilt houses, a new sewage treatment plant has also been under construction. "They are not normal sewage pools, but pools using biotechnologies that purify the water with earthworms," says Professor Yang Jian, designer of the plant, pointing at the two big cement tanks.

Thousands of specially bred earthworms will eat sludge and other wastes in the sewage and the earthworms' feces will become fertilizer, leaving clean water to flow to the nearby river.

This kind of biological sewage treatment pool uses very little electricity compared with the traditional sewage treatment facilities, says Yang, and the whole cleaning process is compatible with the environment.

Before, China only had a small biotech sewage plant for demonstration like this in Shanghai.

Zheng Yonggan, vice director of Zhejiang Huzhou reconstruction assistance team who is in charge of the reconstruction work at Malu Village, says they heard about the sewage program by chance and had invited Professor Yang to help them build the biotech plant in the village.

Walking in the village, visitors could see many energy-saving facilities.

Lines of shining solar panels clad the roofs of school buildings, which allow 1,200 students to take hot showers every day. The wall of the new village hospital is made of insulating materials to keep the house warm in winter and cool in summer, and all roads are lit by solar energy.

Jiang Wei, deputy secretary-general of the Guangyuan Municipal Government, says Malu Village set a good example for an eco-friendly reconstruction in the quake-hit areas. More than a year after the earthquake, the devastated areas are all busy in reconstruction and economic development.

"More construction means we may have more carbon dioxide emissions, yet it also gives us an opportunity to transfer our reconstruction mode to a low-carbon, environmentally friendly and sustainable developing way. Guangyuan is taking this opportunity," Jiang says.

Also as a researcher of sustainable economic development with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Jiang finds her expertise totally compatible to Guangyuan government's low-carbon development plan.

Luo Qiang, secretary of Communist Party of China Guangyuan Committee, says the city, with a population of 3.1 million, has initiated the concept of "low-carbon reconstruction" and has invited experts from CASS and the European Union to map out detailed plans to build Guangyuan's low-carbon construction, industrial system and to promote local resident's environmental protection awareness.

"Building a low-carbon industrial system first needs energy-saving emission reduction, and the increase of carbon sink," says Jiang. "Based on Guangyuan's natural energy resources, we should promote the use of clean energies such as natural gas, hydro-electricity and methane."

The city's extraordinarily rich natural gas resource has encouraged the local government to take the action of "gasifying Guangyuan."

According to the plan, 35 local large and small companies will gradually transfer their energy supply from coal to natural gas, estimating the reduction of carbon dioxide to reach 1.23 million tons per year. By 2015, about 90 percent of local taxis and buses will also use gas instead of oil.

To increase carbon sink means to increase the forest coverage area to absorb more carbon dioxide. Guangyuan plans to increase the forest coverage rate from the current 48 percent to 53 percent by 2015. Its industry system will also be transformed to a low-carbon model with tourism, tea and electronics as its main industries.

The last day of December has been set aside as Guangyuan's first Low Carbon Day. "We chose this day because we want to tell the public it is a critical time to protect the environment and cope with climate change," Jiang says.

She believes that people's attitude and changing lifestyle are the most important factors in building an environmentally friendly society.

"In the past decade, living a frugal life sometimes has been regarded as poor, now frugality has become the fashion," says Jiang. "Local people are very happy to see the change and are proud of living a simple life again."

Just a few days ago, a group of young people rode bicycles instead of driving cars to get married in Guangyuan, which had caused quite a sensation, she adds.

At Daping Village in Sichuan's Tongji County, a place which was also heavily stricken by the earthquake last year, so-called "LOHO homes" are being jointly built by local residents and a non-governmental environmental protection group, the Global Village of Beijing.

The walls of a LOHO farmhouse are made of bamboo plywood and folded polystyrene board, keeping the temperature stable in the room and saving a lot of wood or bricks.

Experts and local villagers decided to develop eco-agriculture, eco-tourism and creative crafts to help recover the local economy after the earthquake, and have established connections with communities in big cities such as the provincial capital Chengdu.

According to Liao Xiaoyi, chief of the Global Village of Beijing, the hand-embroidered handkerchiefs by local women have entered the city's market and have been presented to international celebrities such as former United States president Bill Clinton as gifts.

As an environmentalist born in Sichuan, Liao thinks the living wisdom in China's traditional culture to respect the environment, treasure things, be in harmony with nature and live together peacefully offers a way to solve the current environmental crisis.

"The harmony of mind and body, individual and group, human beings and the environment is very important," Liao says. "I hope the LOHO home will not only benefit the earthquake-stricken areas and the villagers, but also provide a natural and spiritual home for people who want to return to innocence."


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