Aid groups hail disaster preparedness in Sichuan quake

Kang Chun of World Vision looks at the row of damaged houses in Lushan after a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit the province of Sichuan in China. Photo by: World Vision

Dust and rubble littered the Sichuan countryside in the aftermath of the April 20 earthquake that left a reported 208 dead and over 11,000 injured in southwestern China.

Like previous disasters, especially the deadly 7.9-magnitude tremor that hit the same region in 2008, emergency response is often as complex as the disaster itself.

World Vision, Oxfam International and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, among the first organizations to take action after the recent earthquake, would agree as they again pitch in to aid the still-recovering Sichuan people.

Victor Kan, national director for World Vision China, told Devex that only a few months have passed since the Christian humanitarian organization completed its $57 million rehabilitation assistance for Sichuan to ease the effects of the 2008 catastrophe when the earth shook again.

This time, with a weaker 7-magnitude earthquake and increased disaster preparedness, the three aid groups see friendlier conditions as they do immediate disaster response on the ground.

Response

The number of deaths, injuries and damages are expected to mount in the coming days, as will the cost of relief and rehabilitation operations.

“The budget so far is about CNY64 million ($10.3 million) from donations in cash and in kind, mainly from within China and also Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan,” said IFRC East Asia regional communications delegate Francis Markus. “We are also preparing to release funds from the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support the relief operation. This will be around CHF400,000 ($427,899).”

The funds will go to the relief supply of food, water, medicines, tents and rescue equipment, as well as family kits containing household items and clothing. These will be distributed in the epicenter of the earthquake, Lushan county, and other affected townships by 400 staff and volunteers from the Red Cross Society of China.

Oxfam International’s initial target for fund-raising is HK$3 million ($386,373) and the focus will be on delivering emergency supplies such as quilts, tents, cooking utensils and sanitary kits. Six staff has been deployed on the ground to do preliminary assessments and coordination with Oxfam offices in Sichuan, as well as with local partners and NGOs.

World Vision, for its part, is putting aside $2 million for relief efforts involving its 67 staff, who will deliver hygiene kits and Child-Friendly Kits to the earthquake survivors. Depending on the numbers that will come through in the next few days, Kan estimates that funding needs could rise up to $5 million, and more personnel and contractors could be hired to monitor and implement the organization’s programs.

“We will hire more when the program actually starts, a good solid budget is available to us, and if the roads have cleared,” added Kan.

Changing times

Deputy Director of the Oxfam China Program Unit Dawn Li, who worked on-site during the 2008 disaster, told Devex that the two events were parallel in some ways.

“There are similar difficulties, like the road conditions, are not good and there are so many aftershocks and it is still very dangerous,” said Li. “The external factors are more or less the same.”

But this is where the similarities end as the three organizations underscore differences between this new disaster and the last.

“Judging from the scale of this disaster as it appears at the moment, we hope and expect that the loss of life and damage will be on a significantly smaller scale and the scale of total expenditure will be commensurately smaller,” Markus commented about the recent temblor that impacted 1.5 million Sichuan citizens, compared to the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 that affected approximately 15 million people.

The IFRC official does not expect the Red Cross societies to spend as much as the CNY19 billion ($3.07 billion) they did for relief efforts after the Wenchu earthquake a sentiment shared by Oxfam, having spent a total of HK$170 million ($21.8 million), and World Vision.

Disaster preparedness

Disaster preparedness emerged as the turning point in the current relief efforts.

“From our experience in 2008, we believe that preparedness is most important,” said Kan.

Kan added that while disaster relief garners more attention from donors, he noted that preparedness “really helped” aid groups better respond to the latest disaster.

“All the stakeholders have more experience now. The groups participating in the relief have more experience now,” said Li.

Li added that, after the 2008 event, Oxfam built an office in Sichuan and a warehouse that contains relief materials like tents and sanitary kits. These have allowed the organization to respond more effectively to emergencies and transport its materials faster to target communities.

“In general, we have seen a more organized and coordinated response,” said Markus. “There are also several new elements in the response, for example Emergency Response Teams, which were built up from the international Emergency Response Units deployed to Sichuan after the 2008 quake; also psychosocial support, which was a key element of Red Cross programming brought in after 2008.”

Improvement in disaster preparedness among Sichuan citizens was also observed.

“In the affected townships, this time, people say that the lessons they have learned on earthquake preparedness, such as taking shelter under tables, or alongside large pieces of furniture, staying put during the quake but running outside when it stops, have helped save lives,” Markus recounted.

On all sides, calls for support from the donor community and the Chinese government to boost disaster preparedness were heard.

“I think, if we can get better support for disaster preparedness, then we would have a better situation when another disaster comes along,” said Kan.

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About the author

  • Johanna Morden

    Johanna Morden is a community development worker by training and a global development journalist by profession. As a former Devex staff writer based in Manila, she covered the Asian Development Bank as well as Asia-Pacific's aid community at large. Johanna has written for a variety of international publications, covering social issues, disasters, government, ICT, business, and the law.