May 27, 2013 00:00
By Suwatchai Songwanich
As mentioned in previous columns, China is determined to be a world leader in science. This is being applied in a very practical way to earthquake warnings, an area with major political and economic implications, quite apart from its obvious humanitarian
The tragic magnitude-8 earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan in 2008, which caused more than 80,000 deaths, sparked tremendous public criticism of the government and accelerated research into early warning systems. Since then, China has established the Institute of Care-Life in Chengdu that has developed the world’s largest earthquake early-warning system covering 400,000 square kilometres. The Chengu system has been a prototype for other stations around the country and has successfully received early warnings of over 1200 earthquakes.
The combination of the early warning system plus greater connectedness of the population has already shown benefits in terms of disaster preparedness. When a magnitude-4.9 earthquake struck Yunnan on February 19 this year, residents in the area received warnings via cellphones, microblogs and on websites. When a magnitude-7 earthquake struck Lushan on April 20, an early-warning alert went out 28 seconds before.
Although a few seconds may not seem like much, experts say even a three-second warning can help to save lives while a 20-second alert can help reduce the casualty rate by 63 per cent.
Apart from the early warnings, there were other marked differences in the response to the Lushan earthquake versus the Wenchuan earthquake five years earlier. Helicopters were quickly on the scene in Lushan, using remote-sensing technology to locate victims and distribute aid. Premier Li Keqiang was also fast to respond, helping to search for survivors, while a tent village and other support structures for victims were rapidly established.
Another major difference between now and then was the way online social networks were able to help in the relief efforts. China has witnessed a dramatic rise in these networks’ use over the past five years, and within one minute of the quake, users from the disaster area were posting messages for help on Weibo (China’s popular Twitter-like service) while on the same day China’s microblogging community set up earthquake relief channels. As telecommunications became overloaded, the Chengdu government posted a message on Weibo urging people to cut down on phone calls and use WeChat, Weibo or text messages to save resources for rescue operations – a call quickly adopted, which is sure to have saved lives.
Even before the Lushan earthquake the government had made a commitment to build a national earthquake monitoring and warning system across China. Some 5,000 stations are to be established throughout the country within five years at a cost of two billion yuan. Apart from the humanitarian benefits, early-warning systems can also help prevent secondary disasters by shutting down high-speed trains, subways, chemical factories and nuclear stations.
In ancient days, natural disasters such as earthquakes were seen as tests of the legitimacy of a dynasty, showing that the dynasty was losing the mandate of heaven. While the heavy use of social networks could have been a public relations disaster when the earthquake hit Lushan, on this occasion the networks and the government cooperated effectively.
The government’s quick response to this natural disaster has been an early test of China’s new leadership – and one they have seem to have passed.
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