Page 1 of 2 China plans for the next big disaster
By Peter J Brown
On the day before the first anniversary of the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake,
China's Information Office of the State Council released a white paper
entitled, "China's Actions for Disaster Prevention and Reduction". According to
the white paper, frequent natural disasters in China and around the world have
caused enormous losses of life and property.
"China is one of the countries in the world that suffers the most natural
disasters," said the white paper. "Always placing people first, the Chinese
government has all along put the security of people's lives and property on the
top of its work, and has listed the disaster prevention and reduction in its
economic and social
development plan as an important guarantee of sustainable development."
In Section II of the white paper - "Strategic Goals and Tasks for Disaster
Reduction" - the government clearly stated that one main objective is, "to
strengthen the state capacity for emergency rescue and relief work. A
coordinated and efficient disaster emergency management system will be built,
characterized by unified command, sound coordination, clear division of work
and level-by-level control with local authorities playing the main role. This
will form, by and large, an emergency relief system covering all aspects."
A formal assessment of China's emergency response and recovery efforts
following last year's earthquake was issued in December under the auspices of
the Asian Development Bank (ADB) with assistance from the Bangkok-based Asian
Disaster Preparedness Center. The ADB report, "People's Republic of China:
Providing Emergency Response to Sichuan Earthquake" is much longer - almost 200
pages - and, in many respects, more comprehensive and candid than the Chinese
government's official white paper.
To get a complete picture, one must read both the white paper and the ADB
report. When it comes to describing the current state of disaster response,
mitigation and preparedness in China, the ADB report addresses real world
concerns and looming gaps in China's approach to disaster response and
emergency management from the national to the provincial, and on down to the
grassroots level. Prepared for China's Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA), it
documents numerous deficiencies and organizational problems at all levels.
"There are few established comprehensive training strategies and programs, and
coordinated multi-sectoral needs analyses, essential for the development of
appropriate curricula and associated training materials, have not been
undertaken. There is a lack of standards for disaster risk management training,
and there is also no independent monitoring structure for the evaluation of
disaster risk management training materials and activities," said the ADB
Contrast these observations with the following comments in the government's
"Classes on disaster emergency management for leading officials at the
provincial level and classes on unexpected incidents emergency management for
officials at the provincial and ministerial level have been held," said the
white paper. "Since 2005, special training in disaster emergency management for
civil servants has been actively carried out, which has effectively helped to
improve the overall quality and ability of disaster emergency management
personnel at various levels in preventing and dealing with natural disasters
and other unexpected incidents."
One immediately detects a different tone in the ADB report, and a more direct
message that cannot be ignored. The white paper paints a more optimistic
picture, while the ADB report simply tries to be more realistic.
"It is vital that the plans are regularly improved and updated, and that drills
are carried out to practice and test the plans. Moreover, a number of
contingency plans are not practical enough, and there are too many conflicts
between them, both vertically and horizontally," the ADB report stated.
According to the ADB report, the official death toll as a result of the Sichuan
earthquake - the strongest earthquake in China in nearly 60 years - was 69,227
with 17,923 people missing, and 374,643 people injured. More than 46 million
people were affected.
Sadly, lessons learned after the huge Tangshan earthquake of 1976 were never
heeded, according to the ADB report.
"Most of the people did not know that an earthquake on this scale could occur
in the area; and they did not have knowledge and measures which could be
adopted to protect themselves and their families before and during the
earthquake," stated the ADB report.
Besides the need for appropriate house and building design and construction
practices - the terrible tragedy which cost thousands of young lives resulting
from collapsed school buildings last year is a very sad and heated subject unto
itself will not be discussed here - some of the other forgotten lessons from
the 1976 earthquake which claimed approximately 240,000 lives included the fact
that no suitably empowered disaster management agency was established in China,
and there were so few properly trained and equipped rescue personnel despite
"more than 100,000 troops [who] participated in rescue activities during the
China has changed a lot since then, however. Whereas China's borders were
sealed before and after the Tangshan earthquake struck, in 2008 China was
thankful for all the relief supplies that poured in from other countries along
with trained rescue personnel and relief workers. China continues to express
its gratitude for this aid.
Earth observation satellites operated by European, North American and other
space agencies immediately started to gather and share satellite imagery of the
impacted zone as part of a broad multinational space mobilization under the
International Charter "Space and Major Disasters" which was activated by the
National Disaster Reduction Center of China.
China has requested satellite flyovers on various occasions under the Charter
since 2005, following massive floods in particular. A request for foreign
satellites to survey Chinese territory under any circumstance would have been
completely out of the question 32 years ago.
As part of a so-called system for Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW),
the Military Training and Arms Department of the General Staff Headquarters of
the People's Liberation Army (PLA) also announced in May the formation of five
specialized PLA units which will be ready to respond to floods, earthquakes,
chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, transportation
sector-related disasters, and, international peacekeeping and disaster relief
"In general, all of the Chinese armed forces, the PLA active and reserve
forces, People's Armed Police Force, and militia, routinely take part in
disaster relief operations in China. Disaster relief training has been
incorporated in the PLAs official training program since 2002," said Dennis
Blasko, author of The Chinese Army Today (Routledge, 2006), and a former
US army attache in Beijing and Hong Kong during the 1990s. "The PLA's MOOTW
system looks to me like the PLA is trying to codify lessons learned from all
their recent experience and organize and train forces to be able to respond
more rapidly and effectively in the future."
A total of 19 PLA engineering units have been assigned to flood response duties
along all of China's major rivers since 1998, according to Blasko. During last
year's relief efforts in Sichuan, active duty PLA forces from all services -
army, navy, air force, and second artillery - and from all seven military
regions were deployed in Sichuan and surrounding areas with many forces staying
"This massive deployment revealed many shortcomings in the force which China
has readily admitted to in the media even as the troops provided important
support to the local government," said Blasko. "However, you would be wrong to
assume that the PLA somehow dominates China's large-scale emergency management
system. The PLA and other elements of the armed forces provide manpower and
specialized assistance when requested. At all levels of government, military
officials take part in the meetings on local and national security, but they
are part of a large group of government and [Communist] Party officials that
make these decisions."