Notes from the Field

In China, Lessons in Disaster Management Lead to Regional Cooperation

July 24, 2013

The meeting room in the Guangzhou Academy of Governance is packed with 20 government officials. These officials are in charge of emergency management in Guangzhou, a city of over 12 million located in the Pearl River Delta of southern China. The situation in the room is tense. The officials have just learned that unexpected heavy rain fall has interrupted the operation of the city metro system and has caused serious traffic accidents, virtually paralyzing major traffic arteries in China’s third largest city. Furthermore, it has been reported that one of the traffic accidents has involved the spill of an unknown hazardous chemical, posing immediate personal safety and health risks to the city’s residents. As the state of emergency unfolds, there is a flurry of activities in the meeting room. The officials work in a coordinated manner to field calls, process updates, and give instruction to emergency response personnel on the ground.

The above is a scene from an exercise simulation designed and conducted by participants as part of a two-week intensive training workshop. Since 2010, The Asia Foundation has been supporting the Chinese government’s efforts to improve emergency response through its Strengthening Disaster Management Leadership and Coordination (DMLC) program. Through simulation exercises like this one, the program fosters a more collaborative and hands-on approach to disaster management, and enables practitioners to identify where coordination and response mechanisms fall short.

Major disasters over the past several years, including the 2003 SARS epidemic and tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake that took at least 69,000 lives, have prompted the government to take serious measures to improve its regulatory and institutional structures to better manage emergencies. For example, China recently introduced a series of laws and regulations requiring the development of hazard-specific contingency plans from national to local levels; and in 2010, the National Institute of Emergency Management (NIEM) was established as the designated disaster management training institute for government officials.

Sichuan Earthquake

Major disasters over the past several years, including the tragic 2008 Sichuan earthquake that took at least 69,000 lives, have prompted the government to take serious measures to improve its regulatory and institutional structures to better manage emergencies. Photo/Give2Asia

Since its establishment, NIEM has shown great enthusiasm in learning from its counterparts in other countries, including the U.S. Responding to this, the DMLC project has facilitated experience-sharing between NIEM and U.S. disaster management training institutes such as Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Tulane University’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy, and the U.S Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute. These U.S-China partnerships have not only benefited Chinese disaster management practitioners, but have also fostered deeper understanding between the two countries through the examination and sharing of similar challenges. Due to the humanitarian nature of emergency management, bilateral exchange on this issue has been less sensitive and more constructive than on some other issues. Recognizing this, disaster risk reduction was included for the first time in the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, D.C., in July 2013.

As China develops the capacity of its own disaster management system, it will be able to provide valuable insights for developing response and mitigation strategies across the region. To support China in this regard, The Asia Foundation is currently expanding its cooperation with NIEM to strengthen China’s role in foreign disaster assistance and coordination. An initiative has already been launched with support from AusAID and in partnership with the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation that will facilitate triangular cooperation between U.S., Thai, and Chinese experts and government officials. This initiative will further encourage the sharing of knowledge and best practices among training institutes across ASEAN countries.

The Strengthening Disaster Management Leadership and Coordination in China (DMLC) program is supported by USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and adapted from the Master Exercise Practitioners Program of the U.S Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute (FEMA/EMI).

Chen Liuting is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Beijing. She can be reached at chenliuting@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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