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    Practical lessons from an earthquake that devastated China
    Practical lessons from an earthquake that devastated China
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    Practical lessons from an earthquake that devastated China

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    by
    Sarah Zheng
    Sarah Zheng
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    The 2008 Sichuan earthquake claimed 87,000 lives.

    But as many as 30,000 of them could have been saved if the region had had an early warning system, according to a Chinese government-backed earthquake research center, the Institute of Care-Life.

    Since then, China has invested heavily in studying earthquakes to minimize casualties and devastation. 

    Here’s what the country has learned.

    Warn early

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    After the 2008 quake, the national earthquake administration injected $300 million (2 billion yuan) into developing an early-warning and rapid-intensity reporting system to detect and alert people to quakes seconds before they strike.

    The system – similar to ones used in quake-prone countries like Japan, Mexico and the United States – employs a network of seismographs to detect early waves created by an earthquake. China aims to have 15,000 such wave monitoring stations across the country by 2020. 

    Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is known for its pandas and spicy cuisine.
    Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, is known for its pandas and spicy cuisine. Photo: Reuters

    When a magnitude-7 earthquake struck the region in 2017, residents in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces were warned between five to 71 seconds ahead of time.

    Delivered via mobile phones, social media and official terminals, the alerts gave people vital time to seek cover.

    Earthquake research says that being forewarned of an earthquake three seconds before it hits can save 14% of casualties. 10 seconds of warning can save 39%, and 20 seconds can save 63%, reported Xinhua.

    Plan evacuation

    In the provincial capital of Chengdu, an emergency evacuation plan has been formulated in the event of another major disaster.

    All buildings in the city were also evaluated for safety, with public buildings required to be resistant to earthquakes one degree higher than the area’s seismic intensity, according to Zeng Jiuli, president and senior engineer at the Chengdu Institute of Planning and Design.

    “We took data from the China Earthquake Administration – for example, where the earthquake fault lines lie – and have done better urban planning with this information, avoiding construction in unsafe areas,” she said.

    Illustration: Hoi Wong and Daniel Moss
    Illustration: Hoi Wong and Daniel Moss

    Managing the fallout

    China also sought to learn how to better manage the fallout after earthquakes strike.

    The government has strengthened its coordination of rescue and relief forces, to streamline the process of sending military and volunteer forces into disaster areas, said Cao Shuang, head of the Sichuan provincial land and resources department.

    This also involves better communication with the public, including timely official briefings and the publication of information online, he said.

    The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was one of the worst quakes in China’s history, leaving 87,000 people dead, 370,000 injured and 5 million homeless.
    The 2008 Sichuan earthquake was one of the worst quakes in China’s history, leaving 87,000 people dead, 370,000 injured and 5 million homeless. Photo: Reuters

    The Sichuan government officials held a press conference four hours after an earthquake struck in 2013, compared to the more than a day it took after the 2008 Wenchuan quake for an official briefing.

    To better understand the risks, China also established its first institute for disaster management and reconstruction in May 2013, a collaboration between Sichuan University and Hong Kong Polytechnic University. 

    The institute has laboratories dedicated to physical and occupational therapy, prosthetics and orthotics, and disaster nursing, as well as an information resource center to provide public education.

    SARAH ZHENG
    SARAH ZHENG
    Sarah is a contributor to Inkstone. She is a China reporter covering diplomacy and society news at the South China Morning Post.

    SARAH ZHENG
    SARAH ZHENG
    Sarah is a contributor to Inkstone. She is a China reporter covering diplomacy and society news at the South China Morning Post.

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