Quake readiness, turning the clock back to 2005

By Qian Gang — It has been a year already since the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan. And as we remember that painful experience, we must engage in thorough reflection. That means also taking a fresh look at what actual steps were taken to prevent or mitigate disaster. [Frontpage Image: "China earthquake" by Sweejak, available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

This does not mean that we must tear everything down and rebuild from scratch. In fact, we have many decent laws in our country that simply need to be put into action, and promptly. We have stringent regulations that through disuse have become empty scraps of paper.

With the help of the Internet, I have ferreted out some of these old documents, and I would like to share them with everyone here, so that we may draw important lessons from them.

On January 31, 2005, more than three years before the earthquake struck, the government of Sichuan province sent down government order No. 6 (“川府发”[2005]6号文件). It was called, “Notice Concerning Further Steps in the Work of Earthquake Prevention and Preparedness” (关于进一步加强防震减灾工作的通知). In accordance with regulations on openness in government affairs, this document was printed in the Sichuan Government Bulletin (四川政报) and is still available online today.

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[ABOVE: Screenshot of the Sichuan Government Bulletin online site, with 2005 document No. 06 on enhancing earthquake preparedness. Were any of these steps taken?]

This document deals specifically with the strengthening of work toward preventing and mitigating earthquake damage, and lays out a full-scale strategy on how to “comprehensively improve seismic monitoring” (全面提高地震监测能力), “comprehensively raise our capacity for earthquake forecasting and emergency decision making and management” (高地震预报和应急决策管理水平), and how to conduct earthquake safety work in the countryside.

One thing in the document that should grab our attention as we read it today is its clear language about the need to “urgently rebuild and reinforce various dangerous and old schools” (及时改造和加固各级各类危、旧校舍).

When I continued searching along these lines, I was surprised to discover that many provinces and cities issued similar documents on earthquake disaster prevention and mitigation in early 2005.

Shaanxi said “priority had to be given to primary and secondary schools in rural areas, and to earthquake fortifications at hospitals” (要高度重视农村中小学校舍、医院的抗震设防). Guangxi said “educational departments and other relevant government offices at various levels must work urgently to rebuild and reinforce dangerous or old school buildings of various kinds in all areas” (各级教育主管部门和有关部门要及时改造和加固各级各类危、旧校舍). The city of Xi’an said “there is a need to pay special attention to the fortification of primary and secondary school structures against earthquakes, and those that do not comply with the demands of earthquake protection must be rebuilt” (要高度重视农村中小学校舍的抗震设防,对达不到抗震设防要求的要进行改造).

On July 28, 2005, on the very same day that the anniversary of the Tangshan Earthquake was commemorated, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development held a national forum attended by the heads of earthquake disaster prevention offices across the country. The ministry demanded that “special attention be paid to the seismic fortification of large-scale public buildings” (特别注意大型公共建筑的抗震设防), that “leadership be strengthened and responsibility be taken, employing measures to ensure every effort is made to reduce injury and loss of life in the event of a disaster.”

Every single one of these documents makes reference to another important document, the State Council’s “Notice Concerning the Strengthening of Prevention and Mitigation Work for Earthquake Disasters” (No. 25, 2004). This document serves as the policy reference for all of these local and regional documents on earthquake readiness.

If you make a careful reading of the speech delivered by Zhang Peizhen (张培震) of the China Earthquake Administration’s Institute of Geology to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on June 30, 2008, everything becomes clear instantly. Zhang, who is head of the Institute of Geology, said: “In 2004, the China Earthquake Administration organized earthquake experts from around the country to carry out research on earthquake rise from 2005 to 2020. They designed 22 areas around the country that were considered to be priority regions for earthquake monitoring and defense.”

The documents released by the State Council and by various provincial and city governments at that time were clearly part of an overall government push for earthquake disaster prevention.

But the burning question is: were these documents actually translated into action?

For example, taking into account the fact that most all of these documents mention the urgent need to reinforce school buildings, we must go back and ask: after the government raised this issue, what was the response of the various government officials responsible? Did education offices file their own reports on the situation? Were any funds appropriated for this work? How were housing and development offices involved? Did lower-level governments put these policies or recommendations into effect? Further, did the media play the role it should have in publicizing the issue and monitoring the situation?

It is never too late to make amends. The first goal of reflecting back must be to root out fatal loopholes. We have to take a pragmatic approach in getting a clear picture of what actions were taken after the 2004 State Council document was handed down. With this information in hand, we must take a fresh look at every step in earthquake distaster prevention and mitigation work, up to the moment that the earthquake struck.

The comprehensive push for earthquake readiness that we can glimpse from these government documents, a push that was prompted by long-term earthquake forecasts from experts, was followed not long after by last year’s Wenchuan earthquake. These documents hold extremely valuable lessons as we review our policy successes and failures in disaster warning and prevention. The government, academics, the media, all of us must give these administrative clues the attention they deserve — and we can afford even less to willfully ignore them.

A version of this article appeared in the May 7 edition of Southern Weekend.

[Posted by David Bandurski, May 8, 2009, 12:36pm]

One Comment to “Quake readiness, turning the clock back to 2005”

  1. [...] The Chinese government is facing more criticism concerning its earthquake safety plans. A recent article in the Southern Weekend by Qian Gang asks if officials have turned any of their earthquake safety plans–dating back to 2005–into action. Translated by China Media Project: [...]

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