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Lumen Summer 2010 Issue
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It took just 80 seconds

Adelaide alumnus Dr Mara Warwick has been tasked with managing the largest emergency loan in the World Bank's history - US$710 million.

At 2.28pm on 12 May, 2008, the world moved for China, literally.

An earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale rocked the Sichuan Province, an area roughly the size of Spain, levelling more than four million homes, killing 90,000 people and injuring another 374,000.

It took just 80 seconds to leave a damage bill estimated at US$123 billion.

The tremor was felt some 1500 kilometres away in Beijing, where Dr Mara Warwick was working in her World Bank office at the time.

It was a pivotal moment for the University of Adelaide civil and environmental engineering graduate, marking the start of her biggest career challenge to date.

The senior urban environment specialist has been tasked with managing the World Bank's US$710 million emergency recovery loan to China for a reconstruction program of the affected regions.
As project manager of the largest emergency loan in the bank's history, Dr Warwick is co-ordinating teams of experts - including engineers, technicians, planners, environmental specialists and financiers - who are all involved in the reconstruction effort.

The scale of this disaster in China is unprecedented in terms of the damage it has caused.

"You can drive for 20 hours non-stop and still find town after town completely obliterated," Dr Warwick said. "People around the world just don't understand the extent of the devastation because it is impossible for the international media to convey it in a few news stories."

The magnitude of the China earthquake was similar to others around the world in recent decades but what was unique about this one was its duration, the time of day, and the fact that it occurred in one of the most densely populated and poorest areas of the country.

"The time of the earthquake was significant. Workers were in office buildings and children were in school, so casualties were very high. The extent of the area affected was enormous, covering 600 square kilometres," Dr Warwick said.

Loss of biodiversity, chemical contamination and deforestation have also triggered a change of climate in the region, compounding the tragedy.

Almost everyone living in the Sichuan Province - 32 million people -- has been affected. People have lost children, spouses, siblings, friends, grandparents, jobs, homes and their livelihood.

But they are starting to rebuild, both in spirit and in their day-to-day lives.

Dr Warwick's team is responsible for not merely replacing those buildings crushed under mountains of debris and associated landslides, but providing new, modern infrastructure to cope with future population growth.

"This earthquake occurred in a developing country that was already undergoing rapid change. Prior to the quake the Chinese Government was implementing a policy to train people for non-farm work because the traditional agricultural pursuits were inefficient and producing very little food. Now that the earthquake has triggered landslides, floods and flattened the only productive land, this policy is even more important to pursue."

The world can take a valuable lesson from the Chinese Government's response to the disaster, Dr Warwick said.

"They have done an extraordinary job, mobilising the military and resources very quickly. Within weeks the affected counties had running water, electricity and mobile phone services were restored. Temporary schools have been built and dormitory-style housing provided for the children so they can attend school."

A provincial twinning program has also been established in China where the richer provinces on the east coast are partnering with quake-affected counties to provide both technical expertise and financial assistance.

The loss of thousands of government officials in the disaster has placed additional pressure on the reconstruction effort but the complaints are few and far between.

"The Chinese people are very disciplined, calm and will tolerate a lot, particularly in the poorer areas, where expectations are not high. People in these regions are not asking for any more than basic needs -- food, warmth and shelter."

It was a point of difference raised by Italian officials when Dr Warwick visited L'Aquila on a knowledge exchange mission in April, after a powerful earthquake ripped through Italy's mountainous region.

"Italian people are much more demanding of the government when something goes wrong. In Italy, the maximum number of people they could put in a tent camp and still keep the peace was about 200 families. In China they housed thousands of families in tents without any complaints.

"The Italians said there was no way they could have managed an earthquake of the scale that happened in China. It tells you something about the capacity of the Chinese to handle things on a massive scale," Dr Warwick said.

The 2008 earthquake was a defining event for China, in many respects. The population of 1.3 billion people had not witnessed horror on that scale in their lifetime and it has galvanised ordinary men and women to contribute to their country in a way they have never done before.

"For the first time, Chinese people have donated to a cause, which is just not in their culture. But this event has had a massive impact across the country and people are passionate about making a contribution to help rebuild these provinces," Dr Warwick said.

"This is certainly my big contribution to China and I know a lot of other people feel the same way." ■


Dr Mara Warwick graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1992 with a Bachelor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and was also awarded the University's inaugural Honours Alumni University Medal.

After graduating, Dr Warwick worked in Adelaide for Kinhill Engineers before moving to China for work in 1993.

She was awarded a dual Fulbright and George Murray Scholarship in 1998, and completed her Masters and PhD from Stanford University in the United States, where she combined an engineering and political science postgraduate degree, specialising in environmental policy implementation in China.

Dr Warwick joined the World Bank in 2003 and was initially based in Washington before moving back to Beijing, China with her family in 2006.

Two Chinese women weep in front of a collapsed building in Dujiangyan, in the Sichuan Province.

Two Chinese women weep in front of a collapsed building in Dujiangyan, in the Sichuan Province.

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Dr Mara Warwick

Dr Mara Warwick

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