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Devastation in Jyekundo

April 27, 2010

Tibet Infonet
26. Apr 2010, ISSN: 1864-1407

The earthquake that shook the region of Jyekundo/Kyegudo (Chin: Yushu)
on 14 April 2010 was by far the most devastating in Tibet's recent
history. The death toll was initially put at 200 on the day after the
quake but has, according to official figures, risen to approximately
2,500. The authorities acknowledge that the final number will be higher,
but it is still too early for serious estimates. The quake and its
aftermath is a reminder once again that the Tibetan plateau is a region
of intense seismic activity, and also raises questions about the types
of buildings that are now prominent there.

The Chinese authorities were as fast to launch rescue operations as they
were eager to publicise their efforts but it is obvious that a quake of
this magnitude was unexpected and preparations for such an eventuality
were inadequate. Despite this, spontaneous, private help was swiftly and
efficiently mobilised. A wave of solidarity rose across the Tibetan
regions. So much tsampa, the traditional Tibetan staple dish made of
roasted barley flour, was dispatched to Jyekundo, that it became scarce
in Lhasa. Tibetans also sent considerable amounts of money, as did
numerous Chinese from all over the PRC. Various celebrities made public
appeals for help and although the authorities officially welcomed the
appeals they were reportedly keen not to highlight their significance.

The authorities were also busy taking control of the distribution of
relief goods and despatched an anti-corruption taskforce to ensure that
it remained under their control. The Tibetan monks, who arrived from
monasteries like Serthar and from as far away as Kumbum monastery, close
to Xining, to help with rescue work and perform religious rituals for
the dead and their families, have hardly been mentioned in official
reports, although they were highly visible on TV. Since then, they have
been pressed by officials to return to their respective monasteries. A
large number of pictures documenting the monks' work have been posted by
individuals on the internet(1). However, the authorities still seem
willing to welcome a few exiled Tibetan clerics who have brought
substantial financial and other help. A high lama who is based in
Australia reached Jyekundo on 22 April. Thrangu Rinpoche, one of the
most senior monks of the Karma-Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and a
resident of Nepal, was also reportedly on his way to the scene.

Journalists, both foreign and domestic, had only restricted access to
the region. Many reports in the international press appear to be based
on official Chinese sources, as they recycle the same specific
stereotypes about Tibet, like its remoteness and harsh climate as well
as the dangers of altitude sickness. Official reports were also swift to
assert that most of the destroyed buildings were 'traditional'
constructions, presenting yet another stereotype, that of 'unscientific'
building methods of inferior quality. This needs qualifying.

Picture evidence indeed shows a striking disparity in the destruction of
Jyekundo. While most of the town is now a single rubble field, some
buildings appear to have miraculously withstood the quake. Experience
with previous quakes indicates that traditional Tibetan buildings of
stone and mud are, in fact, fairly earthquake resistant due to their
specific blend of massiveness and their inherent structural elasticity
(their weak point being relatively unsupported inner columns). But if
most houses in Jyekundo were frail constructions, they can hardly be
regarded as 'traditional'. Most of the genuine Tibetan structures here,
as in most parts of Tibet, were left unattended and then fell into
dilapidation, or were simply destroyed, during the 1960s. They were then
replaced by structures made of poor quality materials, with thin walls
and some modern elements like concrete bricks loosely held together with
mud or inappropriately mixed cement. This reflected an official policy
that preferred quick construction with little regard for quality, as
well as a trend towards fast urbanisation that transformed Jyekundo from
a mere hub for traditional trade routes into an extensive Chinese township.

These structures as well as more 'modern' concrete utilitarian
structures like shops, schools and administration offices were almost
entirely wiped out, if not by the first then by the second, heavier
quake and have generated the most casualties. The few remaining
genuinely traditional buildings appear to have withstood the quake far
better. As did buildings, such as one of the main hotels or the shopping
centre at the heart of the town, which were either recently erected or
newly strengthened after tighter construction rules were implemented
following the devastating quake that hit Sichuan province in 2008.

Fragmentary information that TibetInfoNet received from local sources
provides some details about patterns of effect of the events of 14 April.

An over-proportional number of elders survived the first quake, which
occurred in the early morning. This is because many had left their
houses at dawn to perform daily religious duties, particularly
circumambulations of sacred places (Tib: khora) like monasteries. As
they were outdoors, many of them suffered only minor injuries while
younger members of their families died under the rubble of their houses.
Without the support of their families, these elders now face an
uncertain future.

It also appears that many victims were woken up by the first quake and
were able to run in panic out of their homes. But many were then caught
by the second, even more violent quake when, after considering the
chilly highland morning, they returned to their houses in order to fetch
warm clothes and food.

The same circumstances had different effects. On the day of the quake,
full moon rituals were performed in the monasteries. Because of this,
most fully ordained monks found themselves in their prayer halls when
the quake struck, while acolytes and monks with only partial ordination
were outside attending to their daily duties. Thrangu monastery thus
lost most of its fully ordained monks when the main temple collapsed,
while there were fewer victims among their younger peers. In contrast,
in Jyekundo monastery, the main temple withstood the quake far better,
partly because two of the main columns slid up against each other,
stopping each other's fall and continuing to support the roof of the
temple, but also partly because the shock waves were less violent there
than further south. As a result, the proportion of younger and not fully
ordained monks among the victims was higher there. Generally, the quake
was far more violent in the south, than in the north. Thrangu monastery
which is situated on the way to Nangchen, towards the south, was totally

A dam constructed in a high valley not far from Thrangu was of great
concern in the period immediately after the quake. The dam appears to
have been severely damaged by the second strike and there were fears
that it might break during the numerous aftershocks. Jyekundo is
situated in a flat, low valley and, had the dam broken, it would have
inevitably flooded the plain and made any rescue operation, as well as
the evacuation of the survivors, extremely difficult. The authorities
were able to control the situation by slowly releasing as much water as
possible. It is still unclear whether it is possible to rebuild the dam,
but such plans are unlikely considering just how closely a catastrophe
was avoided. Whatever the case, the region of Jyekundo is likely to
remain without its main source of electrical power for a considerable

Following the quake, information was able to reach the outer world due
to mobile phones. But communication progressively broke down. While this
has been explained by assuming a crackdown by the authorities on
communication, a more likely scenario is that phones went silent because
there was simply no power to recharge them. Damage to the local airport,
which is also in the south, seems to have been repaired to the extent
that it was quickly able to receive small aircraft.

Much of Tibet's ground once lay deep below what geologists call the
Tethys Sea. While the south Asian continental plate, for millions of
years attached to Africa, drifts north, it pushes itself below the Asian
continental plate forcing it to upwards. Because this process is
ongoing, the Himalayas, at the line of junction between both plates,
continues to rise, making Tibet an extremely active seismic region.
Although relatively frequent, earthquakes in Tibet mostly remain benign
for the population simply because most of the Plateau is uninhabited.

Notes:?1: See:

Last minute information:

The website High Peaks Pure Earth which mainly conveys information from
Tibetan blogs reports on 26 April 2010 that Tibetan writer Shogdung aka.
Tagyal was arrested on 23 April 2010, apparently in connection with his
co-signing of an open letter by Tibetan intellectuals in Qinghai dated
17 April. The strong worded letter criticized the Chinese authorities'
temporary ban for non-locals to enter Jyekundo region and advised people
to send donation to the region through personal contacts instead of
using officially designed channels. Shogdung himself was stopped of
going to Jyekundo. (for a full report see:

The arrest is singular in so far as Shogdung is known for his critical
positions towards Tibetan traditions and Buddhism and was able to
publish his views via official channels. If not due to personal
grievances, the arrest likely reflect a growing sense of nervousness by
the authorities about the situation in Jyekundo and its potential to
generate possible unrest.
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