Mankind has never stopped fighting natural disasters. In modern times, creating an emergency warning and response system that can minimize casualties has been a key concern for governments around the world.
Despite efforts worldwide, natural disasters with major casualties continue to make headlines.
So China’s latest reforms may be instructive.
With the establishment of a central government body that oversees all natural disasters in the country, China has seen a decrease in both casualties and economic losses from natural disasters in the past half year.
Super Typhoon Mangkhut, which wreaked havoc in southern parts of the country after landing in Guangdong province on Sept 16, illustrates the effectiveness of the newly established system. The typhoon killed six people and brought direct economic losses of 5.3 billion yuan ($769 million) on the Chinese mainland.
But that was a significant improvement over the other three super typhoons of similar strength and trajectory in the past decade, including Super Typhoon Hato in 2017.
The death toll and direct economic losses from Mangkhut were, respectively, only 17.5 and 22 percent of the average of those caused by the last three similar super typhoons, according to the Ministry of Emergency Management.
“The ministry dispatched three work teams to areas that were about to be hit by the storm to help local governments take precautionary measures. The major tasks of the teams were to evacuate people from dangerous areas, prepare facilities and materials needed for disaster relief and create emergency plans,” said Guo Zhiwu, head of rescue coordination at the ministry.
As Mangkhut came ashore, these teams immediately mobilized rescue efforts, both in the typhoon-stricken areas and also from outside of those areas to help local governments in their disaster relief work, he said.
On Sept 13, the day the ministry received the report that Mangkhut had been upgraded to a super typhoon and would make landfall in three days, more than 20,000 firefighters from Guangdong and Hainan provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region had already been dispatched to key areas that were expected to be affected.
Meanwhile, more than 3,600 rescuers from the fire brigades and work safety rescue teams in six provinces, including Zhejiang, Hubei and Hunan, were also ordered to stand by as reinforcements.
Disaster relief materials in warehouses overseen by the central government in four provincial regions were prepared to ensure timely transport of their materials to affected areas.
China has established a cross-ministry coordinating system for emergency response, said Guo, noting that it also involves the People’s Liberation Army and government bodies such as the Ministry of Water Resources and China Meteorological Administration.
Under the system, joint consultations by all these government bodies will take place when natural disasters occur. For major disasters, the ministry will draft special emergency plans to ensure quick response, he added.
Change for efficiency
In the country’s latest national institutional reform, 13 responsibilities from 11 government bodies, mostly related to disaster relief, were shifted to the newly established Ministry of Emergency Management in April. As part of the reform, 200,000 firefighters from the armed forest police that are responsible for forest fire control, and the firefighting force under public security authorities, were transferred to the new ministry.
Zhou Wei, deputy head of the ministry’s emergency command center, said China’s institutional advantages have been demonstrated in disaster relief, as all necessary resources can be mobilized to address major challenges.
“We now have a solid, unified team for disaster relief work,” he said.
The institutional advantages were also visible after Shouguang, a major vegetable-growing area in Shandong province, was hit on Aug 18 by one of the most serious floods in decades.
The flood inundated farmhouses and drowned large numbers of livestock. Water up to 1 meter deep lingered in some places for a week.
Soon after the flood was triggered, the ministry dispatched a work team to carry out a preliminary investigation in stricken areas. It found that facilities for floodwater drainage were seriously needed, said Guo, head of rescue coordination.
He said the ministry then called out more than 7,000 firefighters and other workers from four nearby provincial regions, including Hebei province and Tianjin, and sent them to the stricken areas, where they carried out drainage projects.
The ministry said it has established an information collecting platform. Both central government bodies and local governments of each provincial region can report emergency incidents to the ministry via the platform. The system ensures that the top emergency management authorities are made aware of the latest situation in a timely manner.
Fan Weicheng, director of Tsinghua University’s School of Public Safety Research, said having a unified command for disaster relief is clearly stated in China’s law on emergency response and the requirement for advance planning ensures that properly targeted actions will be undertaken.
“Once something happens, there will be someone responsible for it. Not only will that person take up responsibility proactively but he or she will cope with the situation in a scientific and reasonable manner,” Fan said.