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    Greater China
     May 30, 2009
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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 report.

Contrast these observations with the following comments in the government's white paper.

"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 disaster".

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 activities.

"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 several months.

"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." 

Continued 1 2  

Sichuan crawls back to life
(May 12,'09)

China counts earthquake costs
(May 14,'09)

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