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Crisis preparedness and response: the Chinese way


Written by Steven A Zyck

Hero image description: Satellite system in the National Disaster Reduction Center of China Image credit:ODI Image license:Creative Commons

The recent Advanced Course on Crisis, Recovery and Transitions – jointly run by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI and Tsinghua University’s School for Public Policy and Management – highlighted the energy that Chinese institutions are bringing to crisis preparedness and response.

China is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, floods, droughts, fires, typhoons, blizzards and pandemics such as SARS. During the first three quarters of 2013, natural disasters caused $84.5 billion-worth of damage. During the first nine months of this year alone, 856,000 homes in China were destroyed by disasters. On average, disasters cost China 1.6% of its gross domestic product (GDP). In comparison, disasters cost the United States 0.57% and the Philippines 0.80% of GDP in 2012.

While the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 – which killed around 90,000 people – is the most destructive disaster in China in recent years, the 2003 SARS epidemic was most influential in pushing the government to review how it handles emergencies. Following the epidemic, the Chinese authorities realised that their approach to disaster preparedness and response was overly centralised, and began establishing emergency management offices at multiple levels of government under the central State Emergency Management Office and the National Disaster Reduction Committee.

China’s crisis response capacity has also developed internationally. The Chinese International Search and Rescue Team, which draws upon military, police and civilian expertise, deployed to Iran following the 2003 Bam earthquake, to Aceh in Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and elsewhere. It has treated thousands of patients and rescued dozens of people trapped under rubble.

China has applied technology to disasters in creative ways. The Natural Disaster Reduction Center of China (NDRCC) includes a state-of-the-art operations room from which natural disasters can be monitored using a range of tools, including imagery from three orbiting satellites and unmanned drones operated by private firms. The NDRCC is staffed primarily by young programmers, scientists, technicians, GIS specialists and others who are taking the lead in information management and crisis response at home. Maps and satellite imagery created by the NDRCC is made available to countries around the world by virtue of its partnership with the United Nations Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response and its involvement in the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Despite its strengths, China’s disaster response architecture also faces many familiar challenges, including problems of coordination among a complex series of ministries, departments and agencies at the national, provincial and local levels. Likewise, for all the work the government is able to do, communities are typically the first and most important responders, both in China and abroad. Like international and nongovernmental organisations, officials and experts strive to understand how they can bolster and enable communities to prepare for and respond to crises themselves. However, again like the broader international community, Chinese authorities and experts find it difficult to mobilise resources and political attention for preparedness – despite its long-term benefits – in the face of on-going emergencies.

While the Advanced Course shed light on a number of issues, including those noted above, it also highlighted a few gaps. China has been slow to publicly document, particularly in languages other than Mandarin, its approach to disasters and other emergencies. Conversely, many involved in emergency preparedness and response in China remain relatively unaware of the experiences of the broader international humanitarian community. The maze of predominantly Western humanitarian institutions, and the convoluted jargon which surrounds them, appears to have discouraged some in China from engaging with aid agencies, NGOs and others. This has been exacerbated by the tendency of some humanitarian and development actors to view Chinese aid simply as an incarnation of unprincipled power politics.

The Advanced Course – and the close interaction which it facilitates between Chinese experts and international aid professionals – shows that Chinese and ‘traditional’ aid actors have much to learn from one another. HPG looks forward to continuing this process both through future Advanced Courses and through on-going research into the history of humanitarianism in China.