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Meteorological and Seismological Disasters and the Chinese Emergency Response Mechanism

Introduction Geographical position, climatic features and geological structure have perhaps gone into making the Chinese realm vulnerable to almost all sets of natural disasters. In the preceding 20th century, China suffered 22 out of 100 deadliest natural disasters. In the remote past, in particular during the second half of the second millennium, the Chinese land and people had to bear with 4-6 out of 10 deadliest earthquakes, floods, droughts, snow, hurricanes and landslides. In most such cases, death toll ran in millions.

2008 has been particularly monstrous. Snow and earthquakes disaster, borne respectively of unusual meteorological and seismological phenomenon, put the Chinese state and people to severe test of patience, courage and fortitude to face and live with catastrophe. The system of disaster management, assiduously put in place over the years, had but to acquit their worth.

Beginning January 25, 2008, snow disaster affected lives of 78 million people in 21 provinces, autonomous region and municipalities. Official figures account for 129 tragic death. It inflicted direct economic loss of 267.21 billion Yuan (US$ 21 billion).

May 12, 2008 Great Wenchuan Earthquake, the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time, claimed 87,447 lives in one go. In the school collapse, as many as 19, 065 children died under debris. Notwithstanding, there were 3, 74,176 grievously hurt people. Nevertheless, in a total of 36,052 aftershocks, 104 within 72 hours and the rest thereafter until November 6, 2008, there have been 12 deaths and 1446 injuries besides damages to 4,20,707 houses. As per catastrophe modelling firm AIR, the estimate, the direct economic loss to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province crossed US$ 115 billion. June 08 and Sep 08, nevertheless, brought to fore devastating floods. Equally devastating were Chanchu, Fenshan and Hagupit Typhoons, rendering heavy blows to the lives of people and their economic activities in Guangdong province and Macao Special Administrative Region (MSAR).

Sálvano Briceno, the director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), poured lavish praise to the Chinese disaster management system for “swift and effective” action to mobilize resources to cater emergency needs of “100 million” marooned people in the face of unprecedented snow disaster. In an interview, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was in thick of managing the rescue and relief phase of May 12, 2008 Great Wenchuan Earthquake, Sálvano Briceno and two other experts, Badaoui Rouhban and Dr. Carlos Estuardo Ventura told Zhang Bin, a columnist with the Economic Observer that the “four level of Chinese disaster contingency plan which attributes specific tasks and responsibilities to central and local authorities have allowed a quick and effective response and helped a great deal to save lives.” Aware of the gaps and yet, in a spirit to give credit to whatever China had then achieved in mitigating the sufferings of the people, Badaoui Rouhban added: “This is a major disaster. There is no country in the world which can cope easily with such a big disaster.” In an oblique reference to the limitations of the technology at hand to provide precise early warning, the three top minds did find China wanting, and, Dr. Carlos Estuardo Ventura, in particular, hoped that “one day in the not so distant future it would be possible to make predictions with a high degree of confidence.”

In the cycle of disaster management, emergency response is the key phase. Absolute and/ or relative efficacy of the system is contained in neutralizing and/ or minimizing the disaster outcomes. In open contrast to the accolade of Sálvano Briceno, Badaoui Rouhban and Dr. Carlos Estuardo Ventura as such, the huge loss of precious lives, both during the snow disaster and earthquakes, put prima facie doubts about the efficacy of the Chinese system in vogue.

The paper, in its perspective, delves into the working of the Chinese Disaster Management Mechanism, and would crystallize, in particular, the efficacy of the system in the emergency response phase. The broad assumptions include: First, China is prone to natural and manmade disasters; Second, China has of late put in place a nearly comprehensive disaster management system; and, the latest events of natural disaster has had put the efficacy of the system to litmus test. The hypothesis includes: the Chinese system, while well articulated and orchestrated, it lacked vital hinge of broad based people participation; the Chinese system, put to ground test in 2008, showed a measure of fragility and indecisiveness at middle and lower levels of bureaucratic and political management even though high level bureaucratic and political management exhibited strong and determined bid to tide over the scenario; and, the Chinese system, in over all perspective, borders on traditional pattern.

Applying an eclectic methodological option, the paper goes to present a mirror view of the efficacy of the Chinese disaster management system, as deduced from on ground scenario in the management of first, the “2008 Snow Disaster” and second, the “2008 Wenchuan Earthquake Disaster”. The paper is sequenced to focus: the Decision Matrix; the 2008 Snow Disaster and the Working of the System; the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake and the Working of the System; and, the Long and Short of the Chinese Model.

Decision Matrix As China is endemically beset to natural and manmade disasters, the institutional response system in vogue addresses the phenomenon in multi dimensional pyramidal top down settings. The General Emergency Management Office of the State Council and China Meteorological Administration is the top organization for meteorological disasters. Where it relates to seismological disasters, the General Emergency Management Office of the State Council and the China Earthquake Administration is the top office. He People’s Government at the Province/ Autonomous Region/ Municipality level and the concerned Ministry/ Department constitutes the second layer. The local People’s Government level is the third and other organizations / enterprises stand for the fourth layer. There is now National Disaster Reduction Center (NDRC) under the Ministry of Civil Affairs to coordinate all activities for all sets of natural disasters. In all events, the Master State Plan for Rapid Response to Public Emergencies, formulated and brought to bear upon in 2006 in congruence to the proceedings of the May 2003 conference on ‘Emergency Planning for Disaster Relief in China’, sets in motion calibrated institutional response.

Depending on severity, the institutional response to the calamity has been grouped in four grades of severity (Fig-1). There are, besides, stipulations that the bigger grade disasters must be reported to the State Council within 4 hours of the incident.

Fig. 1 Chinese Disaster Emergency Response Responsibility System

2008 Snow Disaster and the Working of the System

The winter solstice of the Chinese lunar “Brown Earth Rat Year” put China Meteorological Administration (CMA) and its Department of Forecasting Services and Disaster Mitigation in tight spot. All meteorological facilities, HJ constellation, made up of two optical and one SAR satellite included, turned turtle in predicting the virulence of the snow disaster, which shook central and south China, beginning Jan 10, 2008.

Temperature fell below “0” degree Celsius, in certain cases “-26.1” degree Celsius. The climax was reached on 25th Jan 2008. It affected 21 provinces, autonomous region, municipalities, which, in all, held 914.9 million out of a total of 1303 million population of China. Heavy snow and ice lashed for weeks together. The UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attributed the phenomenon to abnormal atmospheric circulation and La Nina. CMA called it worst in five decades. It resulted in heavy loss of life and property and disrupted whole set of life system.

The magnitude and dimension of challenges, setting the tone and tenor for “emergency responses” on the part of the then Chinese “natural disaster management system” in vogue, constituted severe damage to whole sets of critical infrastructure besides loss of lives. Nonetheless, as it happened just when the Chinese “chunjie” (spring festival) was knocking. Shortfall in the response, both in “time lag” and “quality” carried prospect of China’s orchestration of surging power in regional and perspectives.

The Chinese National Meteorological Center (NMC) initially raised “Orange” followed by “red” alerts respectively on 21st Jan 2008 and 28th Jan 2008. The “Orange” alert stands for “Second” grades while “Red” meant “First” grade alert. The severity of the situation prompted clarion call far beyond the 1998 Yangtze flood and/ or 2002 SARS epidemics. Political Bureau of the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) subsequently met on 29th Jan 2008, where the Chinese President Hu Jintao, concurrently the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), exhorted officials under the system to “realize the severity” of the situation, take on the “responsibility”, “rely firmly on the people” and make “all out efforts to “overcome the formidable task.” This meeting was convened after the cadres, in particular from Hunan, Hubei, Anhui, Jiangxi, Guizhou provinces and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous, conveyed their chagrin about the response of the officials to the tragedy. Asked to explain, Wang Zhenyao, Director, Disaster Relief Department at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, put the blame to difficult geographical settings.

Situation was literally perilous. At one time, 6 million railway commuters were stranded, of which Guangzhou railway station had to bear the brunt for 500000-800000 commuters. Jingguang railway was fully damaged. The total number of railway commuters suffering dislocations ran to staggering 178.6 millions. Unusual scenes of commuters jostling and fighting with the People’s Armed Police (PAP) personnel and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers were reported at scores of railway stations. 19 major airports in 10 major cities were closed. 10000 fliers were stranded for days together at Baiyun airport in Guangzhou province. Until the fury of the heavy snow fall dissipated by 06 Feb 2008, a total of 3250 flights were cancelled while 55550 others were delayed. 60000 stranded bus riders were faced with worst ever predicament. 11 million migrant labourers took refund of their home bound tickets in Guangdong alone as the government advised them against the risks. Power and water supply in most of the affected provinces remained suspended for weeks together.

There were flurry of activities both by the top Chinese leadership and officials entrusted with the task of disaster management. As part of Chinese standard “hands-on” approach, five of the nine members of the standing committee of the CPC Central Committee’s political bureau visited eight worst hit provinces within couple of days. Hu Jintao visited Datong coal fields in Shanxi province, where he personally impressed upon both the administrators and miners to work overtime to meet a national challenge to meet coal requirements for the power plants. Hu also visited Qinhuangdao port in Hebei, exhorted port administration and workers to ensure speedy shipments of coal from Shanxi mines to designated power plants.

Chinese Premier paid three visits to the affected areas in 9 days. He supervised relief operations in Hunan, Guangzhou, Jiangxi, Fujian and Guizhou provinces. The other top political personage who visited the victims of the snow disaster included Wu Bangguo, the Chairnman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC), Jia Qinglin, the Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Vice President, and Zhou Yongkang, the State Councilor and head of the Central Political and Legislative Committee. They supervised the disaster relief works in Anhui, Hubei, Henan and Sichuan.

The Chinese disaster management mechanism showed up, and the problems, both relating to the sufferings of people and damage to infrastructure, came to be attended at a breakneck speed once the government and party moved in tandem at the bidding of the Political Bureau of the 17th Central Committee of the CPC. However, as usual, the PLA soldiers and PAP personnel came up shoulder most, if not all on-ground tasks.

Chinese State Council had set up a “Command Center”, which coordinated the work of 23 government and party organizations. They included watchdogs on traffic, public security, finance, health care, information, armed forces and energy. The task involved providing temporary shelters to 1, 08 million houses holds who had lost roof over their head, getting food and cloth, resuming power and water supply, clearing highways and rail tracks and the like. It was inordinately a difficult task as the geographical expanse was spread over nearly whole of central and south and southwest China.

The PLA and PAPF units, located in all the 21 affected provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, deployed 568000 regular person/times. Besides, the PLA reserve and paramilitary units contributed 1.79 million person/times. As many as 180 Major General/ Lt General Level PLA brass personally supervised the rescue and relief operations. The PLA Ground Forces deployed altogether 34000 military vehicles and the PLA AF pressed 100 PLA Aircrafts into service.

The Chinese armed forces used some of the unheard measures. It used kitchen trucks and armoured cars for deicing 2 km long Tongren airport runway in Guizhou province, which had remained closed for 23 days with 13 cm thick ice all around. It used machine guns to shoot power cables to shatter ice. Of different tasks, the Chinese armed forces have been felicitated for clearing 17000 km of highways and evacuating 4.38 million people. They reached homes of the people in far flung areas to distribute 419000 quilts, 219000 cotton padded coats and thousands of tons of relief materials.

2008 Wenchuan Earthquakes and the Working of the System Wenchuan earthquakes offered little breathing time for the disaster management mechanism in place. It had struck the epicenter in Wenchuan county, Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province at 14:28:01.42 CST (06:28:01.42 UTC) on 12 May 08. It measured 8.0 on Richter magnitude scale, which is so far second highest after Chayu-Medog earthquake of 1950 in terms of damage potentials. The “golden hour” for safe rescue response stood more or less 72 hours.

As a matter of principles, emergency response in natural disasters management involves three aspects: first, to prevent risks from happening and reduce losses; second, to take measures to guard against all possible elements that might exacerbate risks; and last but not the least, to contain effectively the after effects of risks. Not until a multilevel indication and warning (I & W) system was put in place, the toll of life and property had to be enormous. This had again to be backed by a verifiable system of early forecasts. Chinese natural disaster management mechanism did not have this advantage. Terrestrial as much as space based Chinese scientific assets failed to give any inkling about movements of seismic waves. Worse the Chinese decision makers did not attach importance to traditional Chinese techniques of earthquake predictions. In the bargain, the Chinese disaster management mechanism then in place had but to weather trauma of surprise.

Characteristic to top down model, the system moved along and/or as the top leadership moved. The course and direction of action on ground carried full blown imprints of their words and deeds. Strange and yet true, the Chinese media took a lead. At 14:48:01.42 CST, just 20 minutes after the quake had hit the epicenter in Wenchuan, Xinhua released a flash, sourced to a bulletin of the China Earthquake Administration. 10 minutes later at 14:48 CST, the China Central TV-4 followed by other China Central TV and local TV channels started non-stop live coverage on the state of disaster. The footage shown at intervals showed the rescue and relief efforts in progress. China Radio International did as well come out in Chinese and other foreign language programme. In almost coordinated sequence, at 15:08 CST, just 20 minutes after the Chinese electronic media turning live, and getting both the domestic and foreign audience in confidence, the Political Bureau of the Standing Committee of the 17th Central Committee of the CPC met and Hu Jintao, the top voice in the Chinese system of political governance, gave the call for “rapid response”. Hu Jintao passed immediate instructions to the PLA and PAPF units, stationed in quake-stricken areas to put in place contingency plan. He called upon entire PLA and PAPF units in the country to prepare contingency plan. As part of follow up, the Chinese State Council proceeded with setting up of “General Disaster Relief Headquarters” with none but the Premier Wen Jiabao as the Commander-in-Chief and vice Premier Li Keqiang as well as Hui Liangyu as deputies. The State Council also constituted eight “Working Groups” with representatives from relevant ministries and departments, PLA and PAPF officials and local government and local party committee leaders. While the former functioned as the fountainhead for all major decisions, the latter under look the ground work. Each of the Working Groups had to actualize in tandem with others in their individual area of responsibilities. It included: Rescue and Relief; Forecasts and Monitoring; Medical and Health Services; Resettlement; Infrastructure; Rehabilitations; Public Order; and, Publicity. In the same vein, at the local level, Sichuan Provincial Party Committee and Sichuan Provincial People’s Government immediately activated the seismic emergency programming and set up the Sichuan provincial headquarters for Earthquake and Disaster-relief Work with Liu Qibao, Secretary of Sichuan Provincial Party Committee and Director of the Standing Committee of Sichuan Provincial People’s Congress, as commander and Jiang Jufeng, Deputy Secretary of Sichuan Provincial Party Committee and Sichuan Provincial Governor, as deputy commander. The response of this level befitted the requirement of “red” alert, which the NDRC made public at 22:30 CST the risk seemed to far surpass the level of “orange” alert declared earlier. At 15:58 CST, again just 47 minutes after the call of the Chinese President Hu Jintao for rapid response and the decision of the State Council to set up General Disaster Relief Headquarters with Premier Wen Jiabao at the helms, a slew of ministers and officials, led by the Premier himself headed for Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and nearest air link for the epicenter of the tragedy. Meanwhile, 18 minutes later at 16:16 CST, Zhang Hongwei, the spokesman of the China seismological Bureau (CSB) had come on air and announced formation of 184 member rescue crew and two helicopters taking off from Chengdu for Wenchuan to reconnoiter the affected areas. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and his team arrived in Chengdu at 19:10 CST. He asked the rescue crew on the scene to overcome all difficulties and reach the hardest hit area as quickly as possible, be it even on foot. “People are trapped in the debris, we must utilize every second”, said Wen. Two military planes were subsequently mobilized at 19:50 CST to send relief personnel – 12 members from CSB, 150 from the Army Corps of Engineers of the Beijing Military Command, 22 from the General Hospital of Armed Police Forces, and 40 members of the national team for on-site earthquake disaster relief, to the quake-stricken Wenchuan, on missions of search, rescue, and medical treatment. Almost instantly, while the Central Military Commission (CMC) kicked off a top-down coordination mechanism at Beijing Headquarters, the Chengdu Military Area Command had set up an emergency command and control center for on-ground operations. Liu Qibao and Jiang Jufeng, respectively Sichuan CPC Secretary and Sichuan province governor did as well stand shoulder to shoulder to offer local party and government supports. The priorities for the ground operation were outlined in the meeting of the Earthquake Disaster Relief Command Headquarters, set up in a tent in Dujiangyan. Clearing of the rocks and mud slides, blocking roads to the epicenter was assigned foremost priority. This was to be accomplished by midnight of 13 May 08. Rescue of persons trapped under rubbles and outbreak of epidemics together with due medical and surgical treatments to survivors were be undertaken simultaneously. In his capacity of Commander-in-Chief of the General Disaster Relief Headquarters, Premier Wen put across five musts: the PLA troops PAPF personnel, deployed for the purpose, must advance towards the epicenter from north and south; efforts must be enhanced to recover the roads against the clock; the disaster situation must be further investigated; all departments must put forth an all-out effort to supply goods and materials to the quake-stricken areas; and finally, a scientific prediction must be made on the tendency of the earthquake, in particular the expected aftershocks, in and around the epicenter. On ground operations moved haltingly despite all earnestness in the resolve and actions of the Chinese leadership and state machinery. The first rescue team to reach Wenchuan, the first location and Maoxian, the second location, took 21 and 45 precious hours respectively. Meaningful rescue operation could start in Mianyang and Beichuan only after 96 hours when Mianyang Earthquake Disaster Relief Headquarters announced partial clearing of the road blocks. Of 10457 villages and 1307 townships in the affected areas, the rescue efforts could reach just 40 villages and township even as the PLA Ground Force and PLA Air Force had by then together pressed into service 71 transport helicopters. China Civil Aviation Administration had also put 30 helicopters at the disposal of the General Disaster Relief Headquarters. 64163 persons, trapped under the rubbles of residential units, schools and factories in Mianyang, Ngawa, Deyang and Guangyuan, succumbed to their injuries as the golden 72 hours passed by without effective on ground works. Much of this happened even in the capital city of Chengdu in Sichuan where a large number of 4276 persons declared dead breathed their last under the debris without any rescue and medical supports. The fate of 164 people, who perished in identical situation in Nanchong, Ya’an, Suining, Ziyang, Meishan, Bazhong, Garze, Leshan, Neijiang, Dazhou, Zigong and Guangan, must not have been any different. Notwithstanding, 411 people lost their lives under rubbles in Gansu, Shaanxi, Henan, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan and Yunnan provinces and Chongqing Municipality. Seemingly a powerful disaster management mechanism, organized with all levels CPC leadership right from national down to provincial, cities prefecture and counties, thus proved ineffective. The high profile 184 member National Earthquake Team, which had arrived in Chengdu at 22:40 CST on 12 May 08, carried out rescue operations in 48 places in 15 days. It included worst hit Dujiangyan, Hanwang town in Mianzhu, Yingxiu town in Wenchuan and Beichuan. The team consisted of both soldiers and medics. The team used UltraVision LifeLocator (TM) Life Detection System, capable of detecting life from the movement created from even shallow breathing. The team rescued 49 survivors, which included 6 experts trapped in the course of rescue operations, 30 students buried under the debris of collapsed school buildings and 13 residents of partially damaged and/ or fully razed to ground individual houses. Besides, the team cleared 1080 remains. It helped other teams in locating 12 survivors and rescuing 36 trapped residents. Much of the rescue operation was literally handled by 146000 PLA and PAPF troops and 75000 militia and reservists. Ge Zhenfeng, deputy chief of the general staff, and Wang Guanzhong, director of the CMC General Office, reportedly took initial command of the situation, ordering units from the Air Force, Chengdu Military Region, Jinan Military Region and the Armed Police Force, as well as airborne unit to quickly proceed to the stricken areas to rescue quake victims. In varying accounts, the PLA and PAPF units, deployed in Sichuan and other quakes hit provinces, flew over 4700 sorties/time and employed over 533,000 vehicles/time in the relief effort. They rescued 3,338 survivors, evacuated 1.4 million local residents, and transported airlifted and air-dropped 1.574 million tons of relief materials. They sent 210 teams of medical workers, psychotherapists, and sanitation and epidemic prevention specialists, and treated 1.367 million injured people. They are again credited for clearing and repairing 34125 km of damaged road networks, in particular in Mianzhu, Shenfang, Pengzhou and Chongzhou. Along with concerned civil departments, the PLA and PAPF units have been applauded for the repair works of 61524 km of power transmission lines, 250 power substations, 24056 km of telecom cables, and a lot of other life sustaining systems. Putting in check 34 quake lakes and 1263 damaged reservoirs from inundating the earthquake hit areas were as much a credit point. Long and Short of the Chinese Model In structure, strategy and operating principles, the Chinese model of emergency response to meteorological and seismological disasters resonates quite akin to the Chinese precepts of war zone military campaign with a difference. The triumvirate of the party, executive and military, vested in Hu Jinao, called the shot. This is while the archetype of the organization system assigns pivotal role to just the executive, vested in Wen Jiabao. Notwithstanding, the unified command of Chinese armed forces, made up of the PLA, the PAPF, the reservists and the militia takes on the fight and all civil components of the archetype lose identity. In effect, the CMC and armed forces as its organ, and not the State Council and various ministries and commissions as its organs, hold the key for field operations. However, as the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and not the Chinese State commands the gun, the nature and character of whole set field operations in rather military and not civil. At the end of the day, the success and failure of the operation in the field can thus be better attributed to the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and its organ the CMC as also their instrument, the armed forces and not the civil authorities of any description. The dichotomies as such breeds alienation on the part of civil components and hence, dispirited articulation of designated tasks. Physical impediments, in particular the surface transport system getting haywire and technical bottlenecks, in particular lack of want of worthwhile digital map, apart, the Chinese emergency response came a copper in saving precious lives primarily for this reason. There is otherwise very little justification to the fact that rescue operation could have saved just 3338 souls while 87447 breathed their last under the debris. In micro perspective, the picture is still worse.

(The writer, Dr Sheo Nandan Pandey, is a China analyst based in New Delhi. Views expressed are his own).

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