Taskforce to tackle natural disasters
China has set up a special joint-ministry taskforce to combat natural disasters.
The central force is being led by the Civil Affairs Ministry and consists of senior officials from a dozen ministries and departments. It has been set up to speedily mobilise the necessary manpower and resources for rescue work in the event of large-scale natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, flooding and landslides.
The news came after provincial governments criticised the party leadership and central Government for being slow in responding to disasters. Provincial government officials in Hunan - badly affected by flooding in 1998 which killed as many as 4,150 people along the Yangtze and in the northeast - complained that it had to rely very much on its own resources to combat the disaster.
'The cross-departmental taskforce would provide nationwide co-ordination, mobilise rescue teams and shipment of supplies to the worst-hit areas, resettle people and control disease in order to minimise casualties and economic losses,' said an official at the Civil Affairs Ministry.
The China News Service quoted senior officials as saying that since March the military had incorporated rescue drills into its routine training to combat natural disasters. Soldiers also have to pass an exam in rescue techniques.
Provincial governments have been ordered to set up a similar taskforce and work out contingency rescue plans at the local level before the end of this year. By next year it is expected that the central and local taskforces will be combined into a national natural disaster team.
The Civil Affairs Ministry has built eight warehouses for disaster relief resources in cities including Shenyang, Tianjin and Guangzhou. Also, 237 permanent centres have been set up in different provinces to receive donations of relief materials.
International relief groups said the taskforce had been set up to show that China had the leadership and resources to cope with natural disasters - thus bolstering the image of the party and central Government in the public's eyes.
But the groups said that in reality, relief and rescue work were often hindered by local bureaucracy and corruption.
Residents, soldiers and authorities in the central rice-growing provinces of Hunan, Hubei and Jiangxi have been gearing up to battle furious flooding along the Yangtze River, predicted to be the worst in recent years, while northwestern China is suffering from drought and insect plagues.
Leaders fear such natural disasters could push millions of herdsmen and farmers back into destitution. Poverty and the resulting sense of insecurity could threaten stability as China prepares for a major leadership reshuffle at the 16th Party Congress in September or October.
Official statistics show that between 1994 and last year, 18.6billion yuan (HK$17.4 billion) in relief funds were distributed to natural disaster victims, while 72 million victims had been resettled.