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Bridging China's troubled waters

Published on Friday, 07 Oct 2011
Mixia village children on their way to school.
Photo: ARUP
Freda Chu leads villagers in checking a bamboo bridge to be replaced by one designed by Arup.
Photo: ARUP
Freda Chu
Photo: ARUP
Ellen Lee
Photo: ARUP

The work of the charity Wuzhiqiao is best known from images of children, often neck-deep in water, attempting to cross rivers on their lengthy walks to and from school. In the rainy season, when rivers swell and fragile bamboo bridges get washed away, their schooling is interrupted. Meanwhile, the dangers of flash floods can be deadly to young and old alike.

Known in English as "Bridge to China", Wuzhiqiao's aim is to build bridges in remote villages in six impoverished mainland provinces. In the four years since its inception, Wuzhiqiao has built 21 bridges and rebuilt two villages following the Sichuan quake.

Following the vision of its founder Ove Nyquist Arup for a socially conscious and humanitarian company, the engineering giant Arup is an active contributor to charities and is one of Wuzhiqiao's three supporting organisations.

"Our corporate social responsibility commitment lies in our corporate philosophy - to shape a better world. We apply it to everything we do, and place society and environment at our core," says Ellen Lee, Arup's associate director for marketing and communications in East Asia.

The Arup Cause, a global initiative, offers structured opportunities to provide technical assistance and, as one of the funding members of RedR, they also provide emergency help in disasters, such as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this year, and the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.

"We set aside 1 per cent of the profit in the management account for charity purposes," Lee says. "Most staff spend some spare time on a charity project on a voluntary basis."

Arup started the Wuzhiqiao project in late 2009 and this was followed by a global brainstorming and design competition in 2010 that produced 44 entries. The winning concept is further developed by the technical team before it is built.

"We are required to take care of [the whole design and production process], including dealing with the logistics. [Mixia village in Yunnan province] is a remote area with no transportation, it is a real challenge for us," says Freda Chu, senior engineer and project leader. 

Collaboration with Wuzhiqiao is strong and Arup relies on the charity's practical experience.

"We use local materials and manpower. The main structure is steel as it has to be strong and robust, but the decking can be bamboo. It can be sourced locally," Chu says.

The final stage of putting the latest bridge project together will be around Christmas. "The villagers have to lead the way when we go there. They are quite keen on helping out," says Chu, who has already visited the site.

The bridge will be built along the children's two-hour walk to school, which is a 30-45 minute walk from any settlement. The logistics of where to stay and how to transport the materials are complicated, offering good insight into the challenging lives of the locals.

"For any average urbanite, it's a vision-changing experience to meet and work with these village people with a yearly income of about 1,000 yuan (about HK$1,200) per year," Chu says. "The major gain is to partially experience the lives of people less fortunate than us and assist them."

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