Yaan earthquake

Focus now must be on Sichuan survivors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 5:24am

Death, destruction, desperation and misery: once more there has been an earthquake in Sichuan province and again there are those harrowing images of how powerful, yet heartless, nature can be. Grief-stricken victims, blanketed bodies and crumpled buildings tell of the catastrophe that has befallen those living in and around the mountainous city of Yaan , still rebuilding from a far bigger quake five years ago that killed more than 88,000. Tragedy brings people closer, and amid the sympathy and sorrow the nation is in mourning for those who lost their lives and empathising with the maimed. We can but hope that more survivors will be found and that the relief effort is as speedy as possible.

As yet, the full extent of the damage remains unclear. The 7.0-magnitude quake hit remote parts of Lushan and Baoxing counties, which are reached by narrow roads and have poor infrastructure. Premier Li Keqiang flew to the affected area within hours and the military and emergency services moved promptly into action. There was a huge outpouring of public goodwill and volunteers were quickly on the move.

But mobilising people and supplies is not all that is required when disaster strikes. A lack of co-ordination between central and regional governments and volunteers led to clogged roads; that delayed getting rescue teams and food, water and emergency shelter in and ambulances carrying the injured out. Fortunately, China is better equipped now than during the 2008 quake; hundreds of helicopters have been put into service.

Authorities were caught off guard five years ago, despite Sichuan being on the Longmenshan fault line, an especially active seismic zone. Buildings, especially schools, proved to have been poorly constructed. Rescuers and relief workers were not prepared. A lack of government transparency and honesty meant that vital facts and details were shrouded in secrecy.

A legacy of the disaster was the manner in which Chinese see their government and what they expect of it. With social media now giving up-to-the-second information, authorities have to respond effectively and efficiently.

Disasters are lamentable but offer an opportunity for change. Mistakes and errors of judgment can still be corrected, giving hope - no matter how slim it may now seem - for those still trapped under rubble or in need of emergency supplies. There will be lessons, but for now attention has to be on the survivors and helping them get back on their feet.

View Yaan Earthquake in a larger map