Storm havoc reveals gaping weaknesses

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 February, 2008, 12:00am

The full extent of the damage wrought by the extreme weather on the mainland is only just becoming apparent. The immediate challenge is to ensure that those who successfully braved the poor conditions to visit their families over the Lunar New Year are able to return.

But as the mainland authorities take stock, it is vital that lessons are learned. The crisis, caused by the worst winter for much of the nation in half a century, raises many troubling questions that require answers. Leaders have promised there will never be a repeat. But given the scale of the problems, much needs to be done if they are to make good on this pledge.

Serious flaws were revealed by the snowstorms. Shake-ups are necessary in disaster management, weather forecasting, infrastructure, electricity price controls and media freedom. Environmental protection measures have to be toughened.

This makes for a bulging in tray. None can be ignored, though: each broken part of the system has to be repaired or replaced so that the misery and hardship will not occur again - even if there is a repeat of the bad weather conditions.

An initial step is the decision to spend billions of yuan on improving weather forecasting. With the scale of the snowstorms not foreseen and a lack of information from forecasters about their duration, this is an obvious place to start.

Equally in need of prompt attention is a national disaster management system. It was not until two weeks after the storms began on January 10 that the central government reacted. A co-ordinating body was set up. Unused to such an effort, its response was too little, too late.

Local disasters can usually be handled by authorities in the areas where they occur. On a wider scale, such as with the snowstorms, an ever-alert national emergency management agency is essential.

A free and open media would assist such efforts.

The system of price controls on electricity also needs to be revised. A free market dictates the price of coal for power plants, but government regulations determine the cost to consumers of the power produced. Electricity shortages that affected households, businesses and trains were in large part down to power companies not keeping fuel stockpiles due to price fluctuations.

In the long term, the creaking electricity grid, road system and rail network have to be upgraded - with the snowstorms, they failed when they were needed most. Millions of people stranded at railway and bus stations at the most important time of the year were the proof. The sooner ambitious plans to expand and improve the railway network are put into effect, the better.

Lastly, environmental measures have to be improved. Global warming is causing climatic change and more adverse weather systems, making reining in the pollution and stopping destruction and degradation of ecosystems a priority.

The to-do list is daunting. Nonetheless, authorities must start the effort with a vengeance as they return to their offices after the Lunar New Year. While natural disasters can never be eliminated, their effect can be minimised.