The death toll from the Sichuan earthquake is in the tens of thousands and climbing. A reasonable assumption is that as communications and access in the disaster zone improve, the number will grow still higher. Experience shows that disaster data and the type of disaster are factors determining the effectiveness of relief. Such was the case after Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake.
The same is true with Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, where poor communications and deliberate blocks on information by the government have hindered international relief efforts.
To maximize rescue options in the crucial first 72 hours after an event, hard information must be available.
Otherwise, even abundant supplies would be of no avail, as rescuers would have no leverage and may inadvertently waste resources.
Alternatively, rescue groups can first be sent to a disaster zone to hunt for victims, but the greater uncertainty in doing this might limit its success.
In China’s case, detailed information and channels of communication can be more important than material resources.
There are several reasons for a lack of disaster information. External communication may be cut off and roads blocked in disaster areas.
Exact figures on casualties may therefore not be available to either the government or private relief organizations. Even Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) relief team could not get beyond Dujiangyan on their way to Wenchuan, and so were unable to reach the most seriously affected areas. In addition, media reports have said that there has been no contact with nearly 60,000 people near the epicenter, indicating that much information remains unavailable.
Added to this, the Chinese government and media’s grasp of the situation is fragmented.
The Chinese government also has strict control of the media and other communications. It would therefore be logical to assume that communication networks are not well developed.
China has relaxed certain media controls, but the regulations there are still much stricter than in Taiwan. This is not likely to change in the short term.
With the 921 Earthquake, large parts of Nantou and Taichung counties were completely cut off. Luckily, amateur radio enthusiasts were able to piece together valuable information for relief agencies so that rescue teams were able to arrive in the disaster areas earlier.
However, their capabilities were limited, and many of these places were unable to state what they needed before relief arrived.
When the Central Weather Bureau said the epicenter of the quake was in Chichi Township (集集) in Nantou County, many assumed that the situation there would be the most severe.
Later, Puli Township (埔里) in Nantou also reported severe damage, and the media then focused on those areas, leading the public and officials to focus their attention on them.
When Chungliao (中寮) and Kuohsing (國姓) townships reported damage of similar severity, a lack of communication channels and transportation delayed the influx of aid.
On the whole, the media focused on Nantou, which quickly received large amounts of aid from the public and the government.
The Nantou County commissioner called for drinking water, instant noodles, tents and other necessities over the radio, and in just three days, the local school gymnasium, acting as an emergency response center, was overflowing with donations.