Notes from the Field

China’s NGOs Essential to Disaster Preparedness

January 8, 2014

According to latest Ministry of Civil Affairs estimates, natural disasters in China last year killed 1,851 people, left 433 missing, and affected some 390 million people across the country. Indeed, China is one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters – on May 12, 2008, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake hit Wenchuan City in Sichuan province of China, claiming the lives of 69,226 people and leaving at least 1,486,407 without safe shelter. Hundreds of voluntary organizations flooded into the affected areas, trying to provide relief. After doing so, many NGOs in the disaster response and relief field recognized the urgency and importance of establishing standardized systems and mechanisms for the industry so as to more effectively address the needs of affected populations.

Sichuan Earthquake

China is one of the most vulnerable countries to natural disasters.  Photo/Give2Asia

One year after the Wenchuan earthquake, the One Foundation, an independent public fundraising foundation in China, launched a NGO Disaster Response Alliance to strengthen cooperation and networking among NGOs, volunteers, media, business, and the public in future disaster responses. The One Foundation NGO Alliance now includes 300 domestic Chinese voluntary disaster response and rescue teams with approximately 5,000 individual members in total. Since its establishment, the Alliance has become the biggest voluntary alliance active in disaster response in China, responding to local emergency disasters in cross-province/district missions.

On April 20, 2013, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Ya’an, a city located close to the area heavily impacted by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. Armed with experience gained from the Wenchuan earthquake and other natural disasters, the Alliance responded within 30 minutes of the quake, dispatching response teams from Guizhou, Sichuan and Shaanxi provinces to the affected area with supplies. The very next day, the first batch of relief supplies arrived in Ya’an and quilts were delivered to local affected villagers.

Immediately following the Ya’an earthquake, the Narada Foundation initiated the 4.20 Joint Operation of Chengdu Charity Organizations, which provided on-scene coordination and management, logistical and capacity building services to emergency response teams and volunteers, and needed services, like food and other daily necessities to the most vulnerable populations in Ya’an, such as women, children, and the elderly. The joint operation quickly expanded from a handful of small Chengdu-based NGOs to an alliance made up of 162 NGOs and voluntary organizations. The formation of both the One Foundation Alliance and the 4.20 Joint Operation is an encouraging trend for the field of disaster management to build more cohesive and effective approaches to disaster response and relief activities.

However, despite these tangible improvements in disaster response coordination, some weaknesses of the newly built alliances have been exposed during large-scale disasters. Challenges encountered by alliance members during field operations include division of responsibility, frequent staff turnover, and the proper management of information, donations, and volunteers. These weaknesses exist partly due to the fact that disaster management is still a relatively new field in China and that many NGOs and volunteer groups still lack comprehensive and systematic disaster management skills and tools.

To address these challenges, The Asia Foundation worked closely with Save the Children and the One Foundation to design and conduct a capacity building workshop in Chengdu for 25 representatives of the One-Foundation Alliance. The workshop covered essential disaster management knowledge and skills related to the incident command system (a standardized on-site approach to manage incidents of varying scope and type and to coordinate multiple emergency responders); site control (preparation before incident scene entry and procedures and steps to manage and mobilize human resources and supplies); crisis communications; application of information technology for relief work; and safety and security of on-site relief workers. The workshop combined lectures, group work, and emergency management exercise simulations to help trainees gain a better understanding of the concepts and tools of disaster response and management.

“I am excited to gain systematic knowledge and skills related to disaster response, which has helped to streamline the knowledge I’ve accumulated from previous operations. We should respond to any disaster not only with our hearts but also with our brains,” one trainee said after the workshop.

Due to the scale and severity of natural disasters affecting China, government efforts alone are not enough to manage disaster preparedness, response, and recovery. Therefore, it is imperative that NGOs join in this effort. In recent years, the Chinese government has encouraged such efforts, including at various high-level strategic planning sessions such as the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee. The Asia Foundation welcomes this more collaborative and comprehensive approach, and will continue to support both private and public practitioners as they prepare for and respond to disasters in China.

*Editor’s note: This piece has been edited from the original version.

Hao Shanli is a program assistant for The Asia Foundation in Beijing. She can be reached at haoshanli@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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