China shows that proactive planning, policies and measures can reduce the risks from natural disasters
China has long experienced its fair share of natural disasters. Last year alone, the country had more than 300 billion yuan ($45 billion) in direct economic losses from earthquakes, typhoons, droughts and other adverse natural events. More recently, torrential rains have led to massive floods, causing more than $26 billion in direct economic losses, affecting 6.35 million people and requiring the evacuation of over 4 million. With economic growth comes a growing concentration of the population and assets exposed to natural events. At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change are leading to a rise in the frequency and intensity of disasters caused by adverse meteorological events. The growing exposure and more intense hazards pose particular challenges in a country of more than 1.4 billion people and a land area the size of a continent.
China's approach toward addressing these challenges is the topic of a recent World Bank knowledge note prepared in collaboration with experts from China's Academy of Disaster Reduction and Emergency Management at Beijing Normal University. The publication takes stock of China's recent efforts in disaster risk reduction and provides insights on what it takes to strengthen resilience at scale. Here are some of approaches that have proven effective:
Planning and guidance by the State: China drafted its first multi-year, comprehensive national disaster reduction plan for 1998-2010, and since 2007, the country has been preparing Comprehensive Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Plans in line with the government's five-year planning cycle. While much more needs to be done to ensure effective collaboration between local jurisdictions, these plans have shown that long-term planning and mitigation efforts are critical to guiding risk reduction interventions. A shift from reactive to proactive disaster reduction has emerged over the years and will hopefully be maintained at the center of the country's disaster risk reduction programs.
Demonstration communities: The government has worked hard to set an example of what it looks like to strengthen resilience at the local level. As a result of its 2008 disaster prevention and mitigation plan, the authorities selected over 12,000 communities across the country to become "demonstration communities" for disaster risk reduction. A dozen years into the initiative, spatial analyses suggest that the country's demonstration communities are not just effective at disaster risk reduction themselves but are also achieving their intended effect of encouraging capacity-building in surrounding communities. Given China's size, country-wide scaling up and deepening of the involvement of communities will in great part define the country's overall resilience in the years to come.
Cross-regional collaborative schemes: In response to the Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008, China established a counterpart support program which paired select provinces and municipalities across the country with the most severely affected counties and cities around Wenchuan to provide financial and technical assistance. The program enabled affected localities to benefit from tailored and dedicated support, while also helping to cover the staggering reconstruction costs. A similar approach was used in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, enabling provinces to learn useful lessons from their peers in terms of how to respond to the emerging pandemic.
Disaster information: The country's resilience building has benefited from relentless efforts toward the standardization of disaster loss data, thus strengthening the ability of disaster risk reduction practitioners to analyze the country's exposure to adverse events. This process has also helped accelerate responses to major disasters. Following the Lushan Earthquake in 2013, also in Sichuan province, it took just 27 days to conduct a comprehensive impact assessment after the disaster situation stabilized, compared with 112 days following the Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008.The loss assessment of the massive floods this summer, which affected 27 provinces and more than 63 million people, took less than a month. China is now working to leverage its modern social media technologies to ensure the participation of local communities and citizens in collecting disaster information.
Risk transfer: Beyond risk reduction measures, China has also been experimenting with risk transfer instruments. Pilot catastrophe insurance protection mechanisms were recently launched in the cities of Shenzhen and Ningbo, and Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. These pilots were rolled out according to both national standards and localized policies, allowing for innovative approaches to be tested and scaled up based on local characteristics. A diversified catastrophe insurance system needs to take shape through the emergence of private insurance actors and the design of products covering property risk and business interruption.
Tackling disaster risk will remain an important challenge-China, like many other countries, will not be immune to the effects of climate change and must therefore prepare itself and its communities to deal with the consequences. The country's renewed focus on the concept of an Ecological Civilization provides opportunities to improve its relationship with nature. Proactive planning, policies and measures that better align with the forces of nature should help increase resilience even more in the years to come.
(Francis Ghesquiere is a practice manager for urban, resilience and land in East Asia and Pacific Region at the World Bank; and Yang Saini is a professor at the Academy of Disaster Reduction and Emergency Management at Beijing Normal University.) (first published on China Daily)