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10 Years after Wenchuan Earthquake, A Silver Lining in Disaster Management

May 9, 2018

By Huang Zhen

On May 12, China will mark the 10th anniversary of the devastating Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan province, leaving more than 69,000 people dead and over 40 million affected. While the impact of the earthquake lasts today, the one silver lining is that the catastrophe has catalyzed improvements to China’s disaster management architecture. Chinese civil society organizations (CSOs) are now an integral part of disaster preparedness and response, and the disaster management system in China is evolving into a more systemic structure.

Sichuan earthquake relief

A rescue team evacuates an injured woman during the Sichuan earthquake. Since then, China’s CSOs have mobilized to dramatically improve their relief efforts. Photo/Give2Asia

The Wenchuan earthquake marked the first time that Chinese CSOs mobilized on a large scale, organizing nearly 180,000 volunteers to assist communities affected by the disaster. Nevertheless, lacking experience in responding to big disasters, their efforts were limited. Since then, Chinese CSOs have made a concerted effort to review where things went wrong,and have taken concrete steps to improve their disaster response capacity.

This was put to the test in April 2013, five years after the Wenchuan earthquake, when the Lushan earthquake rocked Ya’an prefecture, again in Sichuan province. This time, Chinese CSOs were far more equipped to respond, and most of them came from the neighboring city of Chengdu, instead of having to travel from across the country as was the case with the Wenchuan earthquake. A CSO alliance quickly formed to jointly respond to the disaster, allowing their actions to be more efficient and needs-based. In this case, CSOs did not only focus on immediate disaster relief, but also worked to help the affected area’s long-term recovery. For example, the One Foundation established a recovery office in Ya’an after the earthquake, and, over five years, has received over $63 million to respond and recover from the earthquake, the majority of which has been used for the five-year recovery plan. In order to increase the disaster-resilience capacity of the local community, the One Foundation has also implemented a series of projects aimed at disaster risk reduction in schools and communities.

As CSOs prove their sophistication in disaster management, the government is increasingly recognizing their important role. In its 2017 “National Comprehensive Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Plan,” the government emphasized that given their extensive access to local communities, Chinese CSOs are well-suited to play an even bigger role in domestic disaster management in the future. This encouragement at the national policy level has also been reflected in local government procurement of CSO services to train local communities in disaster management. Before the official release of the national plan, the Shaanxi provincial government issued its “Implementation Opinions on Encouraging Social Forces Participation in Disaster Reduction and Response” in mid 2016. This policy encourages CSOs to actively take part in the province’s integrated disaster reduction community construction, such as community disaster preparedness education and community disaster response capacity-building. This is a remarkable development in China’s disaster management system.

In March 2018, China issued a massive government reorganization plan during the 13th annual session of National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and the annual session of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing. This plan sets up a new Ministry of Emergency Management specializing in preventing and mitigating various hazards, including disasters and incidents. The new ministry will also oversee organizing rescue and relief for disasters, workplace safety, and the prevention and control of fire, flood, drought, and geographical disasters. The China Earthquake Administration (CEA) and State Administration of Coal Mine Safety will be supervised by the new ministry, while the State Administration of Work Safety will be dismantled. By integrating the disaster management functions previously scattered across different agencies and streamlining the work process, the new ministry is expected to improve the efficiency of the system in response to crisis situations.

Over the past decade, The Asia Foundation has had a front row seat to these historic developments of China’s disaster management system and has made contributions through a series of initiatives, ranging from promoting public-private partnerships and enhancing inter-agency coordination in emergency response, to a recent seminal project to improve the capacity of the community to respond to disasters.

Responders learn how to splint a fracture during an Asia Foundation CERT Training in Nanning.

This project, which started in 2015, adapted the U.S.-devised Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program for China and trained a total of 162 Chinese “master trainers” from Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Guangxi. These master trainers then train community members on basic response skills. This project also adapted a set of CERT curriculum from the U.S. to the Chinese context, which can be used in future capacity-building activities to prepare Chinese communities in responding to disasters. In addition, the Foundation is also supporting the establishment of China’s incident command system (ICS) through adaption of the U.S. ICS system and pilot implementation in Shaanxi province.

Looking back, the achievements made in China’s disaster management system serve in a way as a memorial to the affected individuals in the Wenchuan earthquake. We will continue to partner with the new ministry and the network of Chinese and international experts and professional organizations so that when disaster strikes again, we are together stronger than ever to respond.

Huang Zhen is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in China. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: China
Related programs: Environment and Climate Action
Related topics: Civic Spaces, Disaster Management


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