05/17/2008, 00.00
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Earthquake, survivors now face threat of disease

Millions of people without water or shelter. Searches continue, but with little hope; controversy over schools that collapsed: minister announces investigations. Thousands of damaged dams under close supervision.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) - After the first shock from the earthquake in Sichuan - which unofficial estimates say has killed at least 50,000 people - protests are growing over the many public schools that collapsed on top of thousands of students, and over the delay in the arrival of aid for the survivors.  Websites and newspapers have released photographs of schools rased to the ground, while many of the surrounding buildings are still standing, and the parents of the victims are accusing local officials and construction companies of corruption. Jiang Weixin, minister of the interior and of city-rural development, yesterday announced investigations, although he insists that schools were not designed to resist such an intense earthquake.

In Dujiangyan, the school collapsed burying 900 students; in Wufu the elementary school collapsed on top of more than 300 students, while almost all of the other buildings have remained standing; the middle school of Beichuan buried at least a thousand young people.  For this reason, furious parents say in the media that "our children were not killed by the earthquake, but by poorly constructed buildings".

Meanwhile, hopes of finding other survivors continue to dim,  even if today in Beichuan a 52-year-old man was pulled alive from the rubble after 117 hours, and a nurse after 96.  These are little drops of hope in a rising sea of desperation, while the moment is approaching to abandon the search for more than 20,000 people considered missing.  The government needs any sort of success, however small, and yesterday the state television network broadcast live from Dongqi the rescue of Xue Xiao, an 18-year-old woman buried for 96 hours beneath her school, and her first words: "Please, give me a cold Coca-Cola".  It is hoped that a few more lives might still be saved, that someone may still have been able to drink and survive thanks to the strong rain that severely hampered rescue efforts during the first two days.

The government was quick to send 130,000 soldiers to try to save lives.  But is still not able to organise itself to help the millions of survivors.  This is in part because of the extent of the damage: more than 4 million buildings destroyed or damaged in Sichuan, and that is still a partial estimate; another 400,000 in nearby Gansu and 300,000 in Shaanxi.  Millions have been left homeless, and many still have no shelter and are living on the streets.  At least 20 cities and counties of Sichuan are without running water, and water purification tablets have not been delivered.  There has been serious damage to the electrical and gas systems, and camp stoves and portable toilets are still lacking.  There is no clothing or blankets; everything has remained buried, or the people are afraid to go back to get them in their precarious homes.  Food and water are in short supply, and even body bags are lacking.  So the risk of disease is rising.  Supplies are hard to deliver in part because many roads are still blocked.

In Sichuan and Chongqing, hundreds of dams have been damaged, many are cracked and losing water, and are under constant observation: a sudden collapse could submerge entire cities.  In the province of Beichuan today, the people are quickly moving toward higher ground, fearing a flood.  The panic was unleashed by news of the risk that one of the local lakes could overflow.

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