07/05/2006, 00.00
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400 million Chinese victims of natural disasters per year

Earthquakes, drought, and floods leave at least 10 million newly poor people in their wake each year. The government has plans to tackle emergencies but bureaucracy and corruption are putting the brakes on aid delivery. Throughout Chinese history, many dynasties collapsed after natural disasters.

Beijing (AsiaNews) – Between 200 and 400 million people in the People's Republic of China are hard hit by natural disasters (earthquakes, drought, floods, and landslides) every year. As a result, at least 10 million farmers are reduced to living below the poverty threshold. Addressing a seminar yesterday, Wang Zhenyao, director of the Ministry of Civil Affairs' disaster relief department, said an average of 70 million of those affected by natural disasters needed government relief. According to Wang Zhenyao, natural disasters had never been more frequent in China and were causing economic losses of more than 200 billion yuan (20 billion euros) a year.

Addressing the same seminar, Wang Guoliang, a vice-director of the State Council's Leading Group Office on Poverty Alleviation and Development, said at least 10 million farmers had been sent back to poverty. Among causes are global warming (that spreads drought and desertification in China), quakes and geographic changes.

Only yesterday, a quake measuring 5.1 was recorded in the north, its epicentre in Wenan (Hebei). Local authorities said there were no victims although buildings in Hebei revealed some cracks.

In '76, in Tangshan, 170km from Wenan, an enormous earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter Scale killed more than 240,000 people. Somewhat superstitiously, many Chinese people attribute Mao's death – a few months later – to the "curse" of the earthquake; news of the natural disaster had been concealed by the government until the death of the Great Helmsman.

Wang Guoliang emphasized that a prompt government response to natural disasters played a crucial role in the survival of the same government: "[In history], there have been many incidents where disasters have led to the demise of a dynasty. Therefore disaster management is closely related to the government and it is the last frontier for the security of a government and the security of a society," he said.

Wang outlined the mechanisms that should be used by China to tackle emergencies: local governments should alert the central government within two hours of the disaster; a work team should arrive at the scene in 24 hours, by which time initial emergency aid should reach the victims; relief funds should be disbursed to victims within 72 hours of a natural disaster.

However, He Daofeng , vice-chairman of the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation, said China's civil protection system was blocked by bureaucracy and by the scant attention paid disaster victims. "There are cases when victims who should receive relief do not get it, while those who are not in need get the relief," he said.

In China, the media have time and again denounced cases of corruption and unjust confiscation of funds in tackling natural disasters.

He Daofeng called for more extensive participation by non-governmental organizations in tackling disasters and delivering aid to victims: "We can hardly see any NGOs at the scene of the disasters."

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