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UPDATED: May 19, 2008 NO.21 MAY 22, 2008
Lessons to Be Learned
An expert from China's top government think tank on disaster relief shares his views on post-earthquake relief efforts

Two days after the earthquake that devastated Sichuan Province, Beijing Review reporter Li Li interviewed Shi Peijun, a member of the expert panel of the National Disaster Reduction Committee under the State Council, which is China's top government think tank on disaster relief, about post-earthquake relief efforts. Shi is also head of the Ministry of Education key laboratory on environmental changes and natural disaster and Vice President of Beijing Normal University.

Beijing Review: How serious is this earthquake in historical prospective?

Shi Peijun: It has been the most devastating earthquake in western areas of China since 1949 and the most serious earthquake in China since the Tangshan Earthquake in Hebei Province in 1976. Actually the area of destruction of this earthquake is larger than that of the Tangshan Earthquake.

How many stages will there be to post-earthquake rescue and reconstruction and what is the key work of each stage?

Post-earthquake rescue and reconstruction can usually be divided into three stages. The first 72 hours after the earthquake is the rescue stage, when the top priority is to search for survivors and save their lives. During these 72 hours, the number one killer of people buried in the debris of collapsed buildings is loss of blood from injuries. Therefore, the success of the rescue work hinges on getting people out as soon as possible and giving basic medical treatment for their injuries.

During the second stage, the key work is to recover the supply of water and electricity, repair telecommunications and get road traffic moving in the devastated areas. This work should be finished within one week after the earthquake. According to historical experience in China, if the work of this stage is not finished in time, it can lead to an epidemic caused by decomposing corpses that could cause a second disaster that claims more lives than the earthquake itself.

The third stage is the reconstruction stage, when basic life is brought back to normal in the affected areas. I believe the reconstruction stage for this earthquake will last a long time since most of the worst hit areas are in mountainous regions, which poses great difficulties to the recovery of road traffic.

What kind of lessons can China draw from this earthquake?

First is that governments at all levels should more strictly implement anti-earthquake construction standards in the three earthquake-prone areas on the mainland: northwestern, southwestern and northern areas. During this earthquake, many buildings in the affected areas would not have collapsed if the buildings had met the crack resistance standards. In the wake of the earthquake, I hope governments at all levels can more strictly implement the crack resistance standards on construction companies. We may have to spend more money on housing, but we will be safer.

Second is that the Chinese public in general has not gained basic knowledge on earthquake survival, which explains a number of unnecessary casualties in the worst hit areas. Watching rescue videos I saw that in hospitals in Dujiangyan, many people on the ground floor and second floor were buried in the collapsed buildings while people on higher floors managed to escape. The reason is that people on lower floors failed to relate the relatively weaker jolts to earthquakes.

We know that Japan's earthquake casualties are small in proportion to the frequency of earthquakes. The key is that the government has provided excellent earthquake survival training to the public. A famous test is that Japanese children playing in their classrooms run to hide beneath their desks without delay when the teacher says there is an earthquake. I have carried out many similar experiments in Chinese primary schools. Almost no student knows to hide under his or her desk. After the earthquake, the government should do more to educate the public on self-protection skills in the face of a disaster.

The third thing is that the Chinese Government needs to invest more in natural disaster emergency response systems, disaster prevention and aid. I feel worried that the proportion of the government budget allocated to this as a percentage of the total government budget has been on a decline since the 1950s.

What are your comments on the Chinese Government disaster prevention and relief system?

China's disaster relief and prevention system consists of four parts: a production safety monitoring system, whose capacity has improved steadily; a post-disaster aid and relief system, which badly needs more government investment; the five-year-old emergency management system, which needs a large amount of capacity-building work and a disaster insurance system, which is still at its trial stage.

However, the Chinese Government's capacity to mobilize the resources of the whole country for rescue work shortly after a natural disaster is without question the best in the world. This capacity has stood out once again in the earthquake relief work and has been highly reviewed by the international community. The shortcoming of China's system is that it is hugely expensive, with far higher costs than in Western countries. The people-oriented approach advocated by the Central Government has put value of life above any economic cost. For example, Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang gave the order that equipment needed in the rescue work should be delivered to the earthquake disaster areas regardless of cost.

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