Dams and Earthquakes

Quake readiness, turning the clock back to 2005

(May 27, 2009) The Wenchuan May 12 Earthquake occurred one year ago. It’s time now to learn from that bitter and painful experience. One way to do so is to carefully and seriously revisit the earthquake and natural disaster preventative measures that were already in place before the quake struck.

I don’t think we need to scrap all the existing regulations and start all over again, as there are many laws in place that were not properly enforced. There are also a number of regulations that amount to nothing more than scraps of paper. The government has released a number of informative official documents regarding earthquake and disaster readiness. I’ve learned that a quick search on the Internet makes these documents readily accessible to those interested. I recommend that anyone looking for answers and lessons from the disastrous event should do the same. .

Three years before the powerful earthquake occurred, or on January 31, 2005, the Government of Sichuan Province issued a “Notice to further strengthening of the seismic prevention and disaster reduction” [2005 No. 6]. In the document, the provincial government placed an emphasis on further strengthening the work of seismic monitoring and prediction and disaster reduction, and provided excellent points on how to “enhance the capacity to monitor seismic activities” and “promote the decision-making and management level of prediction on earthquakes and emergency responds.” And one of the particularly striking points (stated in the document) was to “rebuild and strengthen a variety of old and dangerous school buildings at all levels in a timely manner.”

The results from further searches surprised me, given that in the same year of 2005, many provinces and municipalities released similar documents on the earthquake preparedness issue. For example, Shaanxi Province, which was one of the provinces affected by the Wenchuan Earthquake that occurred on May 12, 2008, proposed “to pay greater attention to promoting the level of the earthquake preparedness, with particular attention to rural primary and secondary schools and hospitals;” the government of Guangxi suggested “education administrations at all levels should rebuild or strengthen old and dangerous school buildings”; the government of Xian (capital of Shaanxi Province) also mentioned “priority should be given to rural primary and secondary schools, and ensure they can meet the official requirements for earthquake preparedness by rebuilding or strengthening a number of school buildings.”

On 28 July, 2005, an anniversary of the Tangshan Earthquake, the construction engineering quality and safety supervision department under the Ministry of Construction held a national conference, and announced that officials from provinces and the construction companies across the country should “pay special attention to larger public construction projects and ensure that they would be safe in the event of an earthquake,” and “to strengthen the leadership and take measures to avoid casualties and reduce the damage caused by the disaster.”

A careful reading of the speech delivered by Zhang Peizhen, director of the Institute of Geology at the China Seismological Bureau, at a seminar for the members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on June 30, 2008, makes the situation even clearer. As Mr. Zhang stated, “In 2004, the China Seismological Bureau organized earthquake experts from around the country to carry out research on the risks of earthquakes occurring between 2005 to 2020. As a result of that, 22 areas were identified as key regions at the national level, deemed priorities for seismic monitoring and disaster prevention for the next 15 years.”

The documents released by the State Council and various provincial and municipal 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, how did various government departments respond, since both rebuilding and strengthening old school buildings was repeatedly stressed in many government documents? Did the education bureaus at various levels report the problems with old school buildings and ask for help from the authorities? If so, how did the financial department deliver the funding?

What role did the construction sector play? Did the lower levels of government fulfill their obligation to strengthen old school buildings? Furthermore, did the media play its part in keeping the public informed and reporting on the activities of governments at all levels?

It is not too late to mend the fence, even after some sheep have escaped. In my view, the purpose of reviewing the government documents is to find where the mistakes were made, prior to the earthquake. Then we will have a new perspective on how each level of government responded to the State Council, which issued the 2005 No. 6 document, and how governments at all level reacted to the central government’s push for earthquake and disaster prevention as early as 2004. The documents mentioned above are especially valuable not only for further studies, but for an overall review of policies on disaster forecasting and prevention. Government officials, academics and the media should not underestimate the value of the existing policies dealing with the issue, nor should they allow them to be forgotten intentionally.

Qian Gang, South Weekend (Nanfang zhoumo), May 27, 2009

Originally Published: May 06, 2009, Translated by Probe International

Qian Gang is one of China’s foremost journalists, best known for his tenure as managing editor of Southern Weekend, one of China’s most outspoken weekly magazines, and his report, “The Tangshan Great Earthquake,” an in-depth investigation on the 1976 earthquake that occurred in Tangshan and killed as many as 250,000 people.

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