Quake survivors will recover but nation must improve emergency relief

Wen Jiabao, known as the people's premier for his empathy with victims of disasters and other misfortunes, expressed confidence that victims of China's latest earthquake would overcome the disaster even before he arrived in Yunnan province to comfort survivors. According to Xinhua, he pointed to the recovery following the Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed more than 87,000 people. That revival was a tribute to the resilience of survivors, rescuers and aid workers and to government support for reconstruction.

By comparison, the two quakes that left 80-odd known dead, at least 800 injured and 200,000 homeless in Yiliang county, Zhaotong, on Friday did not present the same challenge. Certainly at 5.6 and 5.7 magnitude they did not have the destructive power of the magnitude-8 Sichuan quake.

But the images of devastation and suffering are hauntingly similar. Collapsed homes; survivors crowded into tents with meagre food rations; a basic people's hospital without the doctors, nurses, beds or medical supplies needed to cope; and many patients left out in the open for days. As if that were not enough, landslides and bridge and road collapses continued to block or hinder access to emergency workers and supplies, and heavy rain and floods compounded the misery.

That is not to detract from the emergency response and rescue effort reported in mainland media. But it should be remembered that many Chinese still live in underdeveloped rural areas. Hence the creaky infrastructure, including poorly built houses that will not withstand even a relatively moderate quake, especially if it is close to the surface. Such disasters may be unpredictable, but not the difficulties they pose for emergency teams, nor the equipment they need for quick relief, like versatile air transport and mobile field hospitals.

After every natural disaster, authorities must ask if the lessons of the past have been learned, and pursue that question through an open and transparent inquiry into every aspect of it.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Lessons from natural disasters