China: Prepared for the Worst - Measures are taken to enhance disaster relief

SAFETY DRILL: Middle school students take part in disaster response practice in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province
© Xinhua

According to a joint statement issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MOCA) and the National Disaster Reduction Commission (NDRC) on October 10, natural disasters left 1,074 people dead or missing across China in the first nine months of this year.

Between January and September, natural disasters affected 480 million people nationwide, resulting in the evacuation or relocation of 9.12 million people. The disasters also incurred a combined direct economic loss of more than 302.8 billion yuan ($44.33 billion).

"On average, natural disasters cost 2.38 percent of China's GDP in the past 20 years," said Fan Yida, chief engineer with the NDRC.

Fan said the country will make consistent efforts to improve its ability to prevent and mitigate disasters. The government's aim is to keep the economic losses from such disasters to less than 1.5 percent of annual GDP.

Over the next five years the government will work to ensure aid reaches people struck by natural disasters within 12 hours. Current disaster relief regulations require the victims should be guaranteed necessary supplies such as water and food within 24 hours of the occurrence of a disaster.

To respond to natural disasters more effectively, China is expected to train over 2.75 million people in disaster prevention and emergency management by the end of 2015.

Fan said disaster prevention and mitigation is an important part of the government's public services. "We should give full play to the leading role of the government during the process and also encourage non-government organizations to take part," Fan said.

Concentrated prevention

On May 10 of this year, a new national map of disaster-prone areas was released by the State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resource Ecology at the Beijing Normal University.

The map shows the eastern and central parts of China are highly prone to earthquakes, floods, landslides, typhoons and droughts.

"Because most eastern areas, especially the coastal regions, are fast-developing and have a large population, the damage from natural disasters would be heavy," said Shi Peijun, Deputy Director of the National Committee of Disaster Relief, who was in charge of drawing up the map.

According to Shi, the main aim of publishing the map is to make people throughout the country more prepared in the event of a sudden catastrophe.

"The risk of natural disasters is rising in China and we may be entering a period with frequent extreme weather events and geological disasters," Shi said, calling for intensified efforts to mitigate these risks.

Since 2008, China has suffered several major natural disasters.

On May 12, 2008, an 8.0-magnitude earthquake jolted Wenchuan, Sichuan Province, claiming about 80,000 lives, injuring tens of thousands of others and causing a direct economic loss of about 845.1 billion yuan ($132 billion).

In April 2010, a 7.1-magnitude tremor hit Yushu, Qinghai Province; and in August last year, devastating mudslides killed about 2,000 people in Zhouqu, Gansu Province.

On March 10 of this year, Yingjiang County in Yunnan Province, a poverty-stricken area located near the border with Myanmar, was jolted by a 5.8-magnitude earthquake, which flattened thousands of homes and left 26 people dead and another 313 injured.

In order to improve its ability to prevent and mitigate disasters, the Chinese Government authorized the MOCA to establish the NDRC in 2002, which became functional in May 2003. In 2009, a satellite disaster reduction application center was established at the NDRC.

"Today, a 24-hour monitoring mechanism is in operation," Fan said.

On September 6, 2008, Huanjing-1A and Huanjing-1B, China's first two satellites dedicated to environment and disaster monitoring, were launched. Each satellite has two charge coupled device cameras, with a 30-meter resolution and a 720-km width, on board. According to the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, the cameras can jointly scan and produce an image of China's entire territory in two days.

This enables the two satellites to monitor a designated area multiple times and inform government agencies of potential disasters.

"The two satellites provide a stable, long-term data source that helps China fight disasters," Fan said, adding a small radar satellite would be launched later this year to work with the two optical satellites.

Eventually, these satellites will form a constellation, which will provide 24-hour weather monitoring. "They will provide forecasters with a complete image on China once every 12 hours," Fan said.

Meanwhile, Zheng Guoguang, Director of the China Meteorological Administration, said the country would pay greater attention to mitigating the harm caused by natural disasters in rural areas.

"The establishment of a comprehensive system for preventing and forecasting natural disasters in rural areas will be at the top of the government's agenda," Zheng said at a news conference in July.

He said people living in vast rural regions are more vulnerable to natural disasters because they lack the equipment and knowledge needed to cope effectively with such hardships.

As part of the new plan for disaster response, more than 22,000 weather service stations have been built in China and 437,000 rural weather messengers disseminate disaster warnings to rural residents. These facilities now serve nearly 85 percent of the country's rural regions, according to statistics from the China Meteorological Administration.

"Even with these changes, China won't be able to adequately guarantee public safety and prevent serious economic losses in rural areas without adopting a more efficient means of issuing early warnings," Zheng said.

According to a document released in July by the Central Government, by the end of 2015, China will be able to release warnings from 15 minutes to 30 minutes in advance of most severe storms. These warnings will reach 90 percent of the population.

Zheng said the chief barrier to putting such information out even faster lies in the complicated process by which such alerts are approved. He said it took at least 20 minutes to deliver early warning messages via mobile devices. But the government is establishing a fast track for approving the release of disaster alerts and that system will be used at times when extremely bad weather is forecast to strike an area.

Programs to better coordinate the various means of transport and communication used in disaster response are also in the works, according to Zheng.

"The government should do more to teach people the best ways to protect themselves during natural disasters," said Zheng Gongcheng, a social security expert with the Renmin University of China.

Mental rehabilitation

After more than three years of reconstruction, most of the survivors of the Wenchuan earthquake have moved to new houses and reclaimed their lives.

However, post-disaster reconstruction is not just about rebuilding towns. Many people are still haunted by the devastation. "They need proper psychological counseling to overcome their grief," said Zhang Jianxin, Deputy Director of the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

"And psychological recovery is an enduring task," said Zhang, who has been in charge of a CAS psychological rehabilitation program for Wenchuan earthquake survivors for the past three years.

Mass psychological assistance was first provided in China following the earthquake in Wenchuan. Similar programs were also launched after the Yushu earthquake and Zhouqu mudslides.

Just after the Wenchuan quake, Zhang and his colleagues began drafting their long-term counseling plan for the millions of quake survivors.

"Some people are mentally strong enough to accept the loss of their loved ones," Zhang said. "But others are not and suffer from mental setbacks to different degrees."

Many survivors need long-term psychological support to return to normal lives. People who have lost a spouse or children often find it most difficult to recover from the psychological trauma.

Zhang said the CAS-sponsored psychological counseling stations were first set up near temporary shelters built for survivors. But instead of providing counseling immediately, his institute's staff members first surveyed the area to understand the survivors' needs. Only after the initial survey did they concentrate on their main task.

The CAS scientists can boast of many successes but the greatest, according to Zhang, is to make survivors realize the need for mental rehabilitation along with material and physical reconstruction.

The treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients on such a large scale is unprecedented in Chinese history. "Though the Central Government attaches great importance to the treatment of mental trauma, the subject is still not recognized as an important part of emergency relief," Zhang said.

Without a proper mechanism, survivors cannot easily access PTSD treatment. Ministries of health, civil affairs and education did organize rescue and relief operations that included psychological counseling, but their budgets didn't make allocations exclusively for treating PTSD cases.

Because of the lack of a dedicated psychological relief service, not enough professionals are trained to meet the demand in disaster-affected areas. After the Wenchuan quake, medical teams that included psychiatrists were sent to help survivors. But those psychiatrists were gathered from hospitals across the country and stayed in the quake zone for only a short time.

Some educational institutions, especially universities, sent experts in mental therapy to the quake zone but they, too, stayed there only for brief periods. Several NGOs also mobilized volunteer psychiatrists to offer service there, but budgetary constraints prevented them from playing a bigger role.

Zhang advocates setting up a national mechanism for PTSD treatment to combine government and NGO efforts and train a contingent of psychiatrists who would be able to operate effectively in the aftermath of disasters.