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Citizen Centered Disaster Management Strategies

Lessons from Qinglong, China

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Geoffrey West
March 25, 2016


My series of disaster management articles have centered on the idea of decentralizing the responsibility for disaster readiness onto the individual and community levels. There is an ever increasing push in disaster management to rely less on government and “top-down” approaches. These government approaches often fail to deliver on their promises to adequately help the communities they represent. “Bottom-up” approaches rely more heavily on individuals to shoulder the responsibilities of preparing and responding to disasters.

However, as my previous articles have discussed, many communities do not have adequate resources to carry this burden. Thus, if we expect people to be less reliant on direct government services, the government’s role then changes to one of a “helper.” A government that is a helper is one that includes the community in the mitigation, preparation, response and recovery phases of disaster planning and advocates  on their behalf. Inclusion and advocacy create a community that is resilient, self-reliant and competent. An example of this kind of community can be found by looking at the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 in Qinglong, China using Jeanne-Marie Col’s discussion of the topic.

Tangshan City Earthquake

earthquake-779266_640A 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the Tangshan City region in northeastern China on July 28, 1976. Over a quarter of a million people died. In Qinglong County, over 180,000 buildings were partially or completely destroyed. However, no civilian lives were lost. This is due to multiple factors, but a major reason was the high level of involvement the local citizens had in the preparedness process.

Qinglong County’s Citizen Centered Strategy

Two years before the Tangshan City earthquake, the national Chinese government issued “Document 69.” This document highlighted how the northeast region of China was at an increased risk of earthquake activity within the decade. Document 69 gave instructions for preparing and mitigating an eventual earthquake including:

  • Increasing local monitoring of seismic activity
  • Increasing public education on preparedness techniques for earthquakes
  • Strengthening of infrastructure
  • Encouraging “lay monitoring” in factories, mines and schools by local volunteers

Qinglong County took little time to start implementing these recommendations. They created an earthquake department which increased public education by distributing thousands of booklets to citizens. They also included short earthquake preparedness public service announcements in the credits before movies in local theaters. The office expanded the number of earthquake monitoring stations from six to 16. Nine of these stations were located in local schools. The seismic monitoring stations within schools were integrated into the schools’ curriculum on geology and were manned by middle and high school students.

During the two years between Document 69’s publication and the earthquake striking the region, the county officials had thoroughly educated and trained the public so citizens knew exactly what they needed to do when a disaster hit. There were frequent drills where residents would practice the appropriate response to an earthquake.

The Days Before

Four days before the earthquake hit, government officials declared a mandatory evacuation. This didn’t mean leaving the region, but simply moving people away and out of buildings. This could have induced panic in the citizens, as it disrupted everyday life and removed people from their homes.

Panic, however, never set in with the citizens of Qinglong. Residents had constant communication with government officials throughout the mitigation and preparedness phases, giving citizens the knowledge that an earthquake was not just a possibility, but an eventuality. Through constant communications with government officials, and the understanding that a disaster was about “when,” and not “if,” the community did not panic when the earthquake actually hit.

Lessons Learned from Qinglong

Liza Ireni-Saban has three focuses on what creates resiliency in a community: inclusion, advocacy and competency. Government officials in Qinglong did not just simply sit around and expect their communities to be able to take care of themselves. Rather, they included the community in the disaster mitigation, preparedness and even response and recovery phases.

The government not only included the community, but also relied on the community, as geological findings from one high school’s monitoring station was used to speed up public education. The government also advocated on behalf of the citizenry. Private citizens are not known to possess seismic monitoring systems. The government provided these stations, but then empowered the community to be able to use them.

Closing Remarks

It is a strong strategy to decentralize disaster preparedness back onto the individual and community levels. This is a strategy that is, arguably, the best at mitigating the damage incurred during disasters since they are felt at the local level. If bottom-up disaster planning is an approach government wants to pursue, the government’s role must shift from direct service provider. They must also include the community in decisions and advocate for their wants and needs. Only when the community has the resources necessary to deal with disasters, will a bottom-up disaster preparedness strategy work.

Author: Geoffrey West received a M.A. in Public Administration from the University of South Florida. His areas of interest include education policy, emergency management, poverty, political economy and nonprofit management. He can be reached at [email protected].

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