There are just 11 days to go before China's ambitious Aug. 1 deadline for providing temporary housing to the more than 5 million people left homeless by the massive earthquake that also left 90,000 people dead or missing.
In the village of Hongbai, barely a single house is left standing. Since the May 12 earthquake, almost all of what remained of the town has been leveled.
Just days after the quake, streets were flanked by a mess of fallen houses, planks, masonry and cracked walls. Now, all that can be seen are empty spaces, and points of reference are scarce since much of the town has completely disappeared.
'Life Will Be Better'
During lunchtime, the inhabitants of blue Civil Affairs Department tents are having one of their last communal meals together. Many of them have just been given keys to their new prefabs down the hill, and they are all starting to move their belongings.
"Of course I'm happy," says 59-year-old Mr. Wang, who declined to give his first name. "Of course life will be better in a prefab."
The residents are loading their belongings — benches and chairs — on a little red truck that will take them down the hill.
The mood is one of excitement. People seem very happy to be moving into their prefab houses, and there is almost a festive air.
Farther down the valley at a new prefab settlement are lines and lines of identical white temporary rooms with blue roofs. These bare shells will be their homes, probably for the next three years. Each family has been assigned one room, about 175 square feet.
As he begins sweeping the concrete floor, Mr. Wang, who will live here with his wife, starts thinking about the future. Right now, the two are surviving on government handouts of just over a dollar and two pounds of rice a day per person. And as he talks, his euphoria fades.
Waiting For Government Help
"We used to own a little grocery shop," he says. "After the earthquake, we don't have that option any more. I'm 59 years [old], I can no longer work. It's impossible for me to go anywhere else to work. I'm basically waiting for the government to help. The government's reaction to the earthquake was exemplary."
At the tent housing the government headquarters, Wen Xiaogui, deputy director of the Hongbai Communist Party political office, reels off the statistics. He says around half of the 7,700 people living in this village will be allocated prefabs and the rest will be given other help.
"It's not unfair," Wen says of the process. "The villagers made their own choices."
For most of the people moving to prefabs, their houses totally collapsed, leaving them with nothing to build temporary homes. So they applied for prefabs.
Wang Qifa, 56, who is not related to Mr. Wang, says he was not offered any choices. He would have liked to have a prefab, but says those near him have been reserved for office use, so he is making do.
He is busy building himself a new temporary house out of the remains of his old one. Since the earthquake, he has very carefully cleared away the remains of his house and salvaged anything usable: All the planks of wood are in one place; the beams are in another. He is even reusing the nails, because he says he cannot afford to buy any new ones.
"The prefabs are not for us common people, they are for official use only," Wang Qifa says. "These are for the police, government officials." Wang Qifa says he does not know why the decision was made, but he thought it came from the top.
Wang Qifa says he has been informed that the army is coming to help him build a temporary shelter and he is very grateful to them.
His wife is cutting meat for a meal under canvas. They believe they were not given a choice because of one key bureaucratic hurdle: Wang Qifa was registered as a farmer, not as a town resident. Because of that, they believe they have not been assigned a prefab. Instead, like many other rural residents, they have been given a $290 subsidy for building their own temporary housing, with help from the army.
They are not the only ones: There are many others building their own makeshift shelters. One elderly man says he is refusing help from the army because they waste too much material, he says.
An Uncertain Future
Farther down the valley in the destroyed township of Yinghua, the picture is even more depressing. There are few prefabs to be seen. Almost everyone is in homemade shacks and no one knows what the future holds.
One elderly man, who was sitting by his devastated house beside the road, said he had no help at all.
"The government in Yinghua hasn't dealt with what happened," he says. "They don't care about this village which has been so badly hit."
Throughout the quake zone, there is a real inequality of provision. In some places, workers build new roads through huge, orderly prefab settlements, equipped with picnic tables, cooking facilities and exercise equipment.
In others, the destruction is still everywhere and people are still picking through the rubble two months on. Given the magnitude of the task of housing 5 million people — even temporarily — it hardly seems possible any August deadline could be met.