Post-Disaster Recovery Plans after China’s Wenchuan Earthquake

At 2:28 pm on May 12, 2008, the Wènchuān dà dìzhèn (literally “Great Wenchuan earthquake”) registered 8.0 on the Richter magnitude scale. As the 21st deadliest earthquake of all time, the Wenchuan (also known as Sichuan) earthquake took more than 69,000 lives and left about 4.8 million people homeless. On November 6, 2008, China announced that it would spend about $146.5 billion over the next three years to rebuild areas ravaged by the earthquake as part of the Chinese economic stimulus program.

Wenchuan

Natural disasters such as this have long been considered one of the major challenges confronting humankind. In recent years, both the incidence and frequency of natural disasters have increased. It is also evident that losses due to natural catastrophic events have increased dramatically over decades.

In this context, post-disaster recovery practices have become more common and research on disaster recovery within the academic community is also increasing. Many of these studies suggest that urgency and uncertainty in the aftermath of disasters lead to short-term decision-making that does not address, or may even amplify, pre-disaster social, economic and environmental weaknesses, which are the main challenges to long-term sustainability. Therefore, it is essential to incorporate sustainability into the disaster recovery process.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, Center for Urban and Regional Studies (CURS) Faculty Fellow and Director of the Program on Chinese Cities Yan Song, Chaosu Li, a UNC Department of City and Regional Planning doctoral candidate, and their colleagues examined 16 local recovery plans developed in response to the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

Through a CURS-supported, National Science Foundation-funded grant, planning documents from the affected areas were analyzed and evaluated, and in-depth interviews with government officials, planners and researchers were conducted. Song and her colleagues found that the local recovery plans do not appear to have sufficiently incorporated concepts of sustainability.

The severely devastated town of Jundao in Sichuan Province during the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. (Wikipedia photo)

Photo above: The severely devastated town of Jundao in Sichuan Province during the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake. (Wikipedia photo)

The report’s findings reveal five challenges for incorporating sustainability into disaster recovery plans. These include: limited inclusion of environmental and equity goals; limitations to local planning capacity; insufficient enforcement tools; inadequate stakeholder engagement; and weak interagency coordination.

“The Chinese central government has emphasized ‘eco-reconstruction’ as the overarching goal for disaster recovery after the Wenchuan earthquake,” explained Song. “Nevertheless, disaster recovery goals at the local level were still economics-oriented.”

Song and her colleagues suggest the following four steps to improve the local disaster recovery planning process:

First, efforts must be made to include sustainability within a plan’s visions and goals. Environmental goals and achievements should be evaluated in the promotion of government officials. Policy frameworks should be formalized, with visions translated into goals encompassing different dimensions of sustainability that can be measured and tracked. For instance, to achieve the vision of providing a sustainable future for its citizens, one goal could be “mitigating secondary flood hazards,” with an objective to “reduce peak runoff volume.” These policy frameworks must be shared with other government agencies to support the implementation of policy action items by other agencies.

Second, data-sharing mechanisms should be enhanced. “We recommend that planning departments at city and provincial levels possess backups of basic data for areas that are prone to natural disasters,” said Song. “Basic ecological, geological and socioeconomic data at the local level should be shared across government agencies.”

The road heading to Wenyuan, the epicenter of 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. (Wikipedia photo)

Photo above: The road heading to Wenyuan, the epicenter of 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. (Wikipedia photo)

Third, planning techniques such as hazard exposure analyses, ecological impact analyses and ecological carrying capacity assessments should be applied during the early stages of the plan-making process to ensure sufficient sustainability considerations. “In the Chinese context, where a top-down approach often plays the primary role in guiding urban planning, the central government can lead in designing tools and policy actions for sustainability,” explained Song.

Finally, interagency collaboration is an important way to alleviate the existing fragmentation in governmental structure. In the current local government setting in China, agencies involved in, or responsible for, sustainability-related issues include the Development and Reform Commission, the Department of Environment Protection, the Department of Land Resources and Planning, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of Forestry and Agriculture and the Department of Transportation. Because sustainability touches issues administered by this wide range of agencies, developing a framework for interagency coordination is critical for promoting sustainability.

“It is laudable that China has begun to recognize the importance of sustainability in post-disaster recovery planning,” said Song, “and it is especially notable that sustainability was prominently reflected in State Council policies for post-earthquake reconstruction. While this disaster provided a moment to make a statement about sustainable recovery, it also created a situation in which it was difficult to actually accomplish these goals. It may be that Chinese planning practices are able to achieve greater sustainability in situations that allow for more time and deliberation.”