Après le deluge
Disaster Prevention and Relief
Natural disasters are regular occurrences in China, but the floods of this summer were exceptional. Not just for their extent and severity; nor just because water was diverted to rural areas in order to protect cities; nor just because economic costs, including impact on production (now officially estimated at USD30 billion) may throw the economy off course from its 8% growth target for this year - but also because of notable changes in the organisation of the national response. New strategies and concerns are emerging among international donor agencies too.
National disaster sometimes enhances national cohesion. At a time when the government was also beset both by Asia's financial crisis and by the need to press on with painful economic restructuring, this was perhaps the only silver lining of the summer long cloudburst. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), at least, gained in stature and prestige. No-one disputes that the tens of thousands of soldiers deployed did a fine job, both in the first wave of emergency relief and in struggling, shoulder deep, to shore up dykes and defences. The nightly television images of sodden, bare-chested young men heaving sandbags, and reportage steeped in patriotic, military metaphor, may have gone some way to laying the ghosts of Tiananmen.
The PLA is always first on the ground when natural disaster strikes: rescuing survivors, evacuating victims, giving emergency medical treatment, re-establishing communications, clearing debris. These operations are highly efficient, drawing regular accolades from international agencies which, on the whole, agree that no-one else could do the job better.
In the second phase of relief, as situations stabilise, a number of Chinese and international agencies become involved in provision of shelter, food and clean water supplies, and in initial reconstruction, but primary responsibility for co-ordination of relief lies with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA).
China is so prone to earthquakes, snowstorms, forest fires, landslides and, particularly, flooding, that the central MCA is allocated an annual budget for 'routine' disaster relief. According to Li Bengon), Director General of the Ministry's Department of Disaster and Social Relief, this has amounted to more than CNY2 billion (USD245 million) per year over the last seven years. Relief is channelled through the hierarchy of provincial, county and township Civil Affairs departments and bureaux, which also receive local government funding. As these local departments are also charged with aiding members of the community without other means of support, they are able, in Mr. Li's view, rapidly to identify and assist disaster victims.
Although the Ministry maintains several cadre training institutions, these do not provide specialised courses in disaster prevention or management. Such training, rather, is provided 'on the job' says Mr. Li.
Central government may make additional funds available for major disasters and in exceptional circumstances, as this year, the State Council may directly oversee relief efforts.
In Mr. Li's opinion, 'this disaster relief system of vertical co-ordination by central government is very efficient. It can respond to a wide range of disasters, and we are also able to call on the PLA. No other country could have managed this year's floods so effectively.'
China's oldest 'NGO'
Another agency routinely involved in disaster relief is the Red Cross Society of China (RCSC). Established in 1904, this can claim to be China's oldest non government organisation, although like most it hibernated throughout the Cultural Revolution. Since then its costs for staff and premises have been covered by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), and the scope of its activities is now defined by a 1993 Red Cross Law. However, government retrenchment is now creating considerable pressure for the RCSC to spin off from the MoPH and become more genuinely independent, and independently resourced.
The Society oversees a blood donor programme and undertakes general first aid training - in some provinces new car drivers must attend a Red Cross course before obtaining a driving licence - and also organises young volunteers to visit older people at home. However, disaster relief is, increasingly, its main sphere of activity.
According to Wang Xiao Hua, Director of the International Department, some 60% of China's counties have a Red Cross office, and the Society maintains a network of six regional and five provincial 'disaster preparedness centres'. These are essentially warehouses with stocks of relief supplies, but they also serve as focal points for training staff in disaster management, including logistics, report writing skills and first aid tailored to different kinds of disaster. The RCSC has also provided training for members of the armed forces.
During this year's floods, says Mr. Wang, the RCSC was asked by government to concentrate on post disaster epidemic prevention and on directing relief supplies to elderly and disabled people. It mobilised 10,000 medical and sanitary teams (with between five and ten people in each) to provide treatment and preventive measures such as chlorinating of water supplies.
Since 1991 the Hong Kong Red Cross (HKRC) has played a prominent role in disaster relief, rehabilitation and preparedness on the mainland. As well as giving substantial relief aid, it has worked to strengthen medical capacity in vulnerable areas through building and equipping clinics and training staff, and through setting up disaster preparedness centres. It has helped to establish thirteen such centres at prefecture level in Yunnan province and from 1995 to 1997 it carried out a disaster preparedness training programme in Hubei. This consisted in vulnerability mapping, building four small warehouses in frequently hit provinces, training trainers of Red Cross volunteers, and producing appropriate training materials. According to International Service and Relief Officer, Enkas Chau, the HKRC plans to renew such activities next year. It is also looking at issues such as improved communications and community based warning systems, simple household measures to minimise losses in the event of flooding, and improved community storage facilities.
Since July 1997 the HKRC has nominally become a branch of the Red Cross Society of China, but it largely retains 'special administrative' status. By the end of August, in response to national and international appeals the RCSC had received contributions in cash and kind totalling some CNY320 million (USD39 million). Of this, some CNY39 million (USD4.8 million) was raised overseas by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and some CNY90 million (USD11 million) by the Hong Kong Red Cross, but far the largest part was raised in China. Around 80% of the local donations were in the form of relief materials, which were distributed through the RCSC's own channels. Despite its health focus, in some respects the RCSC's disaster work overlaps with that of the MCA. Although the MCA is supposed to have a co-ordinating role 'it is not always clear which is the lead agency' in disaster areas, according to one seasoned international relief worker. Like the Red Cross, the MCA has disaster preparedness centres in several provinces
A rising star
New to the disaster relief stage in China, and a rapidly rising star upon it, is the China Charities Federation. Established in 1994 with contributions from Chinese, Hong Kong and foreign businesses, the central Federation and its regional affiliates initially looked set to support a range of social welfare activities for which the Ministry of Civil Affairs has primary responsibility. Most notably, it funded remedial surgery for disabled orphans, and provided equipment to orphanages. To the sceptical, this was a classic example of the Chinese 'GONGO' ('Government Organised Non Government Organisation'), set up to access funds that government finds hard to reach, in order to pay for work that, on some views, government itself should fund. But an interesting feature of the Federation was that unlike most GONGOs it showed a strong commitment to transparency, publishing regular updates on its work and professionally audited accounts.
This year saw the Federation's first substantial involvement in disaster relief, beginning with aid for the victims of a January 1998 earthquake in Zhangjiakou, Hebei, which caused 10,000 injuries and devastated 100,000 homes. The Summer floods represented something of a Rubicon for CCF: a transition from reactive agency supporting a government department to nationally known organisation playing a leading role in the disaster response. It began relief efforts before the end of June, and the energetic and engaging Secretary General, Yan Ming Fu a retired Vice Minister of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, appeared regularly on Chinese TV throughout the summer, repeatedly stressing CCF's commitment to scrupulous monitoring, reporting and auditing of all monies raised. By August 17, the Federation had raised CNY350 million (USD43 million) in cash and kind, 90% of it from Chinese companies and private individuals.
The MCA, RCSC and CCF nominally agree that CCF's proper role is to raise money domestically, whilst overseas aid should come on a government to government basis or through the Red Cross. However, several western companies, such as Swedish telecom firm, Ericsson, made large donations to CCF.
Li Bengong still regards the CCF as essentially a fundraising mechanism for his Ministry. It is 'inefficient', he says, for too many organisations to become involved in disaster relief, and therefore the government limits and controls the number of players. But there are several respects in which the CCF is already more than a money box, and the signs are that it means to expand its role and operations.
When chinabrief visited the CCF head office, more than one hundred volunteers - mainly high school and university students, but also laid-off workers and retired people - were heaving relief supplies on to trucks bound for the flooded areas. Our interview with Deputy Secretary General Yang Tuan lasted over three hours as she was constantly called away to receive unscheduled visitors or to take calls from provincial affiliates. The meeting took place in a conference room where, simultaneously, campaigning and fundraising strategies were being discussed with a public relations firm, and volunteers were taking turns to lunch out of rice boxes provided free of charge by local restaurants. The atmosphere was dynamic, cordial and optimistic: a marked contrast with the gloomy corridors of the MCA.
According to Yang Tuan, this Summer the CCF launched an appeal for aid, including international assistance, before the MCA and, moreover, was receiving earlier and more detailed flood reports from its network of affiliates and contacts in the stricken areas. The Federation now has 79 provincial and sub provincial affiliates, most of which have sub-branches of their own. On the basis of information from this network, and in response to requests from local governments, the CCF drew up allocation plans with the aid of retired MCA logisticians, overseen by the CCF's three senior directors. (Normally, the Federation's work is overseen by a Council comprising representatives from affiliated organisations and retired government leaders). CCF itself procured supplies from local sources and delivered them through local governments with the help of local volunteer networks.
There was no shortage of volunteers. According to Yang Tuan, more than 200 students responded to advertisements placed on Beijing campuses asking for help in building an internet site for flood reports and appeals. (Similar information was posted on sites maintained by the Red Cross, People's Bank, MCA and two commercially sponsored 'international Chinese' information networks.) Against Li Bengong's seemingly unreconstructed 'democratic centralist' view of how disasters should be managed, these developments suggest an opening up of the field in a way that reflects the switch from command to market economy: more players, drawing on private initiative and acting with relative autonomy, and a greater range of choice for individual and corporate donors. CCF's extraordinary success in accessing private contributions suggests considerable public confidence in non government intervention.
Yang Tuan is keen to build on this confidence. 'We want', she says, 'to use this opportunity for building a charitable organisation that is specialised and experienced in disaster relief, drawing on the best traditions of Western foundations. We have relied on everyone's dedication, but we should also reply on adequate response mechanisms by developing a special disaster relief organisation.'
Does this add up to conflict, or potential conflict, between CCF and its parent MCA? Some international agencies involved in the relief effort believe so, and suggest that relationships are deteriorating as the MCA, CCF and CRCS draw up apparently separate plans for future disaster management. At any rate, the MCA will perhaps have to re-examine its 'coordinating' role, as disaster relief becomes more diverse and decentralised.
Numerous governments have made substantial donations, either directly or through the Red Cross, the UN, and the European Union. On September 23, the UN launched a new inter-agency appeal with a target of USD139 million, USD26 million of which had been pledged by the end of the month.
Several international NGOs have been prompted by the floods to reconsider the nature and role of their input. Oxfam Hong Kong was a substantial donor in previous emergencies but, according to Emergency Programme Officer Irene So, this year made the 'difficult' decision not to engage in initial emergency relief, but to concentrate instead on reconstruction in remote, upland areas affected by mudslides and relatively neglected by government. So far, Oxfam has spent HKD6.7 million (USD870,000) on rehabilitation and prevention in Shaanxi, Guangxi, Yunnan and Jiangxi, working mainly through local Civil Affairs offices. Work has included construction of anti-flood drainage channels, rehabilitation of flooded farmland, and supply of agricultural inputs. Two new approaches have been tested: 'tools for work' programmes for community projects, and the establishment of village level 'emergency funds' where 10% of assistance received by villagers is invested against future disasters.
Save the Children (UK) also refrained from early involvement in general relief work, but is now targeting aid to children - USD117,000 in assistance for affected orphans in Anhui, Heilongjiang, Hubei and Jiangxi, and USD277,000 (provided by the British government) for rebuilding schools in Anhui.
World Vision Intenational's China programme has allocated USD3.7 million to relief and reconstruction (food, medicines, vitamins, water purification, tents, clothing, household utensils, school reconstruction and agricultural rehabilitation) in Guangxi, Hubei, Jiangxi and Sichuan. The Salvation Army (Hong Kong) has spent some USD1.4 million on relief (mostly rice and medicines) in Hunan, Guangxi, Jiangxi, Anhui and Fujian, and expects to raise a further USD750,000, mainly for longer term reconstruction. The Nanjing based Amity Foundation had by the end of August spent USD440,000 on food and quilts for victims in Ningxia, Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Fujian and plans to spend a further USD800,000, half of it devoted to rehabilititaion, by the end of the year. The Hong Kong and Macao Lions Club donated USD250,000 for relief, and is raising more for reconstruction. Hong Kong based Jian Hua Foundation is also raising funds for relief and rehabilitation in affected provinces of the North East.
All these agencies stress their careful monitoring of distribution, but a frequently voiced concern is that needs assessment and reporting mechanisms and skills among recipient government institutions are often inadequate. Several agencies point to more serious lapses in communication and coordination between government agencies and affected populations. According to one close observer, some villages received only an hour's notice that dykes were to be blasted (to protect cities) and their homes flooded. Another reports that 'in some areas we felt people were told to go home too soon', and endured second waves of flooding as a result.
Notwithstanding the extreme, inherent difficulties of working in an emergency situation, this suggests the need for greater and more systematic training in disaster preparedness and management. Yet, whilst provision of relief supplies during an emergency is generally welcomed, assistance in disaster preparedness can be much harder to deliver.
This, at least, is what Médecins Sans Frontières - Holland has found. The Dutch agency has several years experience of flood relief in China, and has this year so far spent USD1.5 million on supplies (essential drugs and medical equipment, chlorine, alum, blankets, plastic sheeting, tents, soap) in Anhui, Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan, fielding teams of medical and sanitary officers to assess needs and monitor distribution.
MSF is keen to develop disaster preparedness work but has found that its natural partner, the China Red Cross, whilst happy to receive emergency donations, is absorbed in developing its own disaster preparedness strategy, and not greatly interested at this stage in technical assistance from outside the international Red Cross family.
For larger donors, there is ample scope for 'capacity building' across a range of technical institutions charged with disaster forecasting and prevention, such as the Meteorology Bureau and the Flood Control Division of the Ministry of Water Resources, and the Seismology Division of the Ministry of Land and Resources. Some donors have already supported this area. The World Bank has financed flood control projects in the Tai Hu basin, Jiangsu, and the Yangtze basins. Sweden has given technical assistance for flood control through reservoir management, and Japan has worked with the Ministry of Water Resources on river information and flood control systems, including high-tech 'telemetering', computer modelling and information management. Japan is about to start a new project with the Ministry of Science and Technology for remote sensing in Western China.
But the 'software' to strengthen management and coordination of disasters when they happen is harder to transfer. Some donors have ventured into the field: the British government has sponsored disaster management study tours to the UK for MCA officials. French Premier, Lionel Jospin, announced during a recent visit to China that France would give FFR 20 million (USD5 million) for a disaster preparedness centre in Wuhan. UNDP has (within the framework of a little- publicised International Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction [IDNR]) provided funding to assist a Chinese IDNR Committee (under the State Council) to develop a national natural disaster reduction plan, to be coordinated by MCA. This has now been drafted (but not yet published), and UNDP expects to renew support for implementation. It remains to be seen whether this can satisfactorily define roles and draw together the contributions of different Chinese actors.
The other major area of concern recurrently expressed by international contributors to the relief effort is how to rebuild communities in ways, or places, that expose them to less risk. Raised houses have been suggested, as has relocation. But the scale of the problem is daunting. According to Daniel Gunaratnam, a hydrologist with the World Bank, 17 million Chinese people live in natural flood detention basins, exposed to recurrent flooding; and many millions more are at significant risk - with normal variation in rainfall patterns a more significant factor, and rain the greater villain, than deforestation. Government is therefore right, Gunaratnam believes, to press on with large scale engineering projects, ('especially to protect cities, because of their fixed capital assets'), including the ongoing Three Gorges Dam project which, he calculates, in cheerful defiance of environmental sceptics, could have halved peak flows in the Yangtze this summer.