Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Different Disasters, Different Responses

With the Chengdu earthquake occurring in Central China just 10 days after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Burma, it's worth looking at the immediate response from those countries to the disaster and needs of the people.

However, before we get to analyzing the response, one needs to keep in mind that the junta in Burma had advance warning of an impending landfall of a major cyclone. They had several days to prepare for the landfall, and yet it's become all too apparent that the junta did little to warn people along the coastline to prepare for the storm, or to prepare an emergency response to deal with the aftermath.

From the moment the cyclone came ashore, the junta has done everything imaginable to control the process of disbursing aid to survivors, even to the point of seizing aid shipments so that humanitarian groups could not deliver the aid directly. Aid is slowly trickling in, but it is a pittance compared to the need. The junta wanted to control every aspect of the response, and in the process more than 1 million people will suffer.

The situation in Burma is so bad, that you've got people suggesting invasion of Burma to dislodge the junta so as to provide relief that the junta clearly is unwilling to direct to the more than 1 million people affected. It's quite likely that without further intervention, the death toll from the cyclone in Burma will be greater than 100,000, if not significantly higher. A good portion of that toll could be avoidable had the junta taken a single affirmative step to provide assistance to the people of Burma instead of doing everything imaginable to protect their own interests.

Meanwhile, on May 12, 2008, a major earthquake hit in Sichuan province, near the city of Chengdu. It was a magnitude 7.8 (some reports post it as 7.9). A wide area was devastated and reduced to rubble. Compare that to the response from the Chinese government to the Chengdu earthquake. The government had no warning that such a quake would happen - nor could they know the severity of such a quake.

That, however, did not stop the leadership from issuing notifications that the government will do everything within its power to bring assistance to those in need. The devastation in the area central to the quake is total - huge areas reduced to rubble, including schools and hospitals. At last count, more than 10,000 were reported dead, with many thousands still unaccounted for and later updates report that the toll is now 12,000. At least 18,000 others are believed to be buried in the rubble. The toll will be much more than one could bear as entire schools crumbled into piles of debris, killing hundreds of students at schools throughout the affected region:
Just east of the epicenter, 1,000 students and teachers were killed or missing at a collapsed high school in Beichuan county — a more than six-story building reduced to a pile of rubble about two yards high, according to Xinhua. The deaths were separate from another leveled school in Dujiangyan where 900 students are feared dead.
The Chinese government may have good reason to underreport the death toll so as to show that they have instituted improvements in infrastructure and building codes not to mention that their emergency response is more than adequate to handle emergencies of this scale, but they have to show the world that they're doing everything possible to bring a swift response to the region, especially with the Olympics in Beijing in three months' time. That's why you're seeing responses from Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao that call on swift and vigorous response. Jiabao is in the region to help direct the response and to reassure the local population that the central government is doing all it can.

The Chinese government called on the authorities to get roads and rail links reopened to the affected areas so that aid can begin pouring into the region in earnest. Already, 16,000+ soldiers have been dispatched to the region, and 20 military planes have been dispatched as well. Expect the number of Chinese mobilized in the response to climb swiftly. As the Chinese have more people to call upon in such incidents, they'll be able to handle an emergency of this scale better than the Burmese junta could, which makes the junta's failure to accept foreign assistance all the more troubling.

At the same time, weather is hampering the relief efforts as rain is preventing helicopters from flying into parts of the affected region. Still, the BBC reports that the Chinese military can mobilize thousands of soldiers rapidly, and that this is the fastest and most open response to a natural disaster it has seen:
The BBC's Quentin Somerville says this is probably the most significant natural disaster to hit China in recent memory, but that the Chinese army has a good record of mobilising and getting people to safety.

He also says it is one of the most open and speedy responses to an emergency he has ever seen from Chinese state media.
It's a far cry from other recent disasters in China, including the environmental disaster on the Songhua River when a factory explosion dumped tons of benzene into the water and millions were forced to find other water sources even as the Chinese government minimized the damage and disruptions.

Still, some of the Chinese coverage borders on hyperbole and reminds me of propaganda films made by the communist regimes about how they heroically saved people from floods and disasters - even as tens of millions perished. They're doing a far better job thus far than they've done in the past, and are doing a whole world better than the Burmese, but they too have a long way to go.

Things will be difficult for a long time to come for both Burma and China.

One can also point to the fact that the junta would not be in a position to refuse aid at all if China leaned on the junta to allow aid to flow in to the country unconditionally. China has long had a relationship with odious regimes, including the junta in Burma, North Korea, and Sudan, sheltering them from international condemnation in the UN and thwarting efforts to open those countries up to more rigorous examination.

Meanwhile, the death toll in China continues to mount, as hope appears lost for those buried in schools. An entire generation of kids will be lost in towns across the affected region.
“There’s no hope for them,” said Lu Zhiqing, 58, as she watched uniformed rescue workers trudge through mud and rain toward the mound of bricks and concrete that had once been a school. “There’s no way anyone’s still alive in there.”

Little remained of the original structure of the school. No standing beams, no fragments of walls. The rubble lay low against the wet earth. Dozens of people gathered around in the schoolyard, clawing at the debris, kicking it, screaming at it. Soldiers kept others from entering.

A man and woman walked away from the rubble together. He sheltered her under an umbrella as she wailed, “My child is dead! Dead!”

As dawn crept across this shattered town on Tuesday, it illuminated rows and rows of apartment blocks collapsed into piles, bodies wedged among the debris, homeless families and their neighbors clustered on the roadside, shielding themselves from the downpour with plastic tarps.
I wouldn't give up complete hope, as we saw reports out of the Mexico City quake that found survivors more than a week after a strong quake collapsed buildings there. But, with each passing day, the likelihood of finding survivors diminishes greatly.

The Australian reports on the willful acts taken by the junta to restrict aid and to project a sense of normalcy as millions suffer. In the process, it suggests that the death toll in Burma is as high as 80,000, if not more and millions are threatened with disease and starvation.
THE soothsayers surrounding Than Shwe, the paranoid general at the apex of Burma's monstrous military regime, are in high favour.

Their prophecies of civil unrest followed by a great natural disaster swayed his decision three years ago to move the capital north to Naypyidaw, an isolated eyrie remote from storm-blasted Rangoon and the fetid sea of devastated or obliterated townships, bloated corpses and destitute survivors that the fertile Irrawaddy Delta has become.

Naypyidaw was untouched by Cyclone Nargis. The only "damage" was to the telephone, on which Than Shwe was said to be unable to take calls all week, not even from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

A good omen in the generals' eyes, this immunity is an awful omen for the stricken Burmese. Naypyidaw's lucky escape can only reinforce the regime's determination to put self-preservation first, even if this means that up to a million more people die, needlessly, denied access to readily available international relief.

The junta is not, of its own volition, going to let in anything like the volume of aid required, at the speed required, to prevent a natural disaster turning into a monstrous - and man-made - humanitarian catastrophe.

It does not admit, perhaps not even to itself, the deadly truth. The official and implausibly precise toll has inched upwards to 28,458 dead and 33,416 missing. Yet according to the army's Irrawaddy divisional headquarters, the cyclone killed about 50,000 in or near Bogalay, where 142 villages were submerged, a further 20,000 in Labutta and at least 10,000 in Pyapon.

Four out of 400 survived in Khaing Shwe Wa village; in hundreds more villages, not a trace of life remains. Remoter areas cannot yet be reached, but in these three districts alone more than 700,000 are without shelter, food or corpse-free water; untreated wounds are turning septic, infant dysentery is rife and cholera, already reported, could rapidly become epidemic.

The generals don't want to know. At Thilawa port, rice for Bangladesh was loaded on to a container ship late last week and the regime insists that it will meet all its export commitments. The only rice released to victims, in handfuls from the port's warehouse, was rotted by flood damage. The state media, parroting the lie that Burma is returning to normal, has switched to "reporting" massive turnout in Saturday's constitutional referendum, which Than Shwe unconscionably refused to postpone.
And yet, aid will not reach those who need it because the junta deems it so. It's easier to eliminate the opposition this way, and they can claim (not justifiably so, in my opinion) that they didn't have anything to do with it either.

Some Chinese are getting angry with the government, claiming that the widespread building collapses were due to shoddy construction and/or lax building codes. Popular Mechanics has more on that angle, including the fact that even if the government builds new structures to stringent building codes, grandfathered structures will be unimproved and therefore remain vulnerable to quakes. It remains to be seen the pattern and type of structures most likely to have collapsed and when they were built.

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