May 12, 2008, remains one of the darkest days in the history of China. This day represents a time a myriad of innocent lives were cut short by a devastating earthquake that hit Wenchuan in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan. The natural disaster resulted in thousands of deaths and unimaginable destruction of property worth billions of dollars. However, an investigation into the catastrophe has indicated that low-quality building infrastructures aggravated the problem. Precisely, research demonstrates that there were bad structural design, unqualified construction quality, and improper location selection in the region. In the aftermath of the calamity, parents of children who had perished embarked on a daunting journey to pursue justice but their efforts were thwarted by the authorities through intimidation, harassment, and detention. Markedly, social media played a critical role during the catastrophe as many people used it to spread information and seek answers from the necessary authorities. Even though the casualties were not as many as in the Tangshan disaster in 1976, the images, the deaths and destruction still reverberated throughout the lives of Chinese people and especially parents and relatives of the victims. However, as evidence in the paper shows, it could have been impossible for the Chinese authorities to prevent the disaster, but it was possible to avoid the level of damage and number of deaths that were witnessed. The Wenchuan calamity provided invaluable lessons to the government and people with regard to disaster preparedness and response.
The Causes and Responses to Wenchuan Earthquake
In duration of just two minutes on Monday 12th of May 2008, a massive and terrifying earthquake shook the Sichuan Province of central China and resulted in a loss of lives and destruction of property. The natural disaster, which has come to be known as Wenchuan Earthquake or Great Sichuan earthquake killed over 69,000 people, left 374,176 injured, and left behind 18,222 missing and thousands trapped under rubbles of collapsed buildings. Chinese authorities located the epicenter of the 8.0 MS quake near Dujiangyan city about 80 kilometers (50) miles northwest of Chengdu at a depth of 19 kilometers (11.8) miles below the surface (Cui et al., 2011). A myriad of aftershocks, landslides, and heavy rainfall compounded difficulties for the government, military, and private workers in their attempt to deliver aid and shelter. In areas that were worst hit, the rubbles blocked roads, and this made it difficult for supplies and rescuers to access the region.
In the face of the challenges, however, the Chinese government was able to mobilize paramilitary troops and army, which played a critical role in the rescue mission. Although the earthquake had the strongest magnitude to strike the East Asian nation in five decades, its effects were exacerbated by poor infrastructure of nearby buildings. Indeed, although China frequently experiences, earthquakes, it was clear that Sichuan was not prepared for such a devastating natural disaster. Undeniably, only a few building of the area were earthquake proof, and this contributed to the number of witnessed causalities. After the earthquake, the Chinese government ensured that it rebuilt the town and laid a lot emphasis on constructing structures that would withstand a similar disaster. Without a doubt, the number the massive damage to property and loss of lives would not have been witnessed if it were not for poor structural design, unqualified construction quality, and improper location of buildings.
Analysis of Sichuan Earthquake
According to Cui et al. (2011), the earthquake was the worst to hit China since Tangshan earthquake in 1976 that claimed lives of estimated 242,000 people. The disaster affected about thirty million people and over 100,000 square miles (Cui et al., 2011). According to the author, almost 1.5 million individuals relocated to safer grounds, over 216,000 buildings were destroyed in the province of Sichuan including about 7, 000 school buildings that killed thousands of teachers and students. Cui et al. (2011) and Xu et al. (2009) indicate that the quake was a result of the Longmenshan fault, which occurred on the northeast and disrupted for almost 300 kilometers. Crust converged from the Tibetan Plateau to the west against a stable and strong crust block underlying southwest China to the east and Sichuan Basin. Moreover, Qi, Xu, Lan, Zhang, and Liu (2010) add that landslides also led to more damage that made it difficult for rescuers to reach some victims. In spite of the damage, deaths caused by the quake, hunger and diseases also led to the loss of lives because supplies of food and clean drinking water were affected. This indicates that the authorities could have saved lives if the distribution of the essential commodities was well-coordinated and organized.
Figure 1: The Sichuan earthquake in numbers (California Institute of Technology, 2008)
Figure 2: The Wenchuan Earthquake fatalities by numbers (California Institute of Technology, 2008)
The Chinese Government, in collaboration with international humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and other volunteers, performed disaster relief work, thus, helping people to resume their normal lives and restore the town to its former self. In particular, the government played a vital role in ensuring that it organized the volunteers in a bid to save lives and speed up the whole rescue operation. It is within the mandate of the governments to not only finance and coordinate rescue missions but also to make sure there is good organization and communication between different experts and ordinary workforce. Clearly, then, the Chinese administration played its role perfectly, and certainly, its efforts were key to the success of the disaster relief operation. The government dispatched helicopters, servicemen, and police officers to rescue victims who trapped by rubbles. This act demonstrated the willingness of the government of China respond quickly and efficiently to disasters that affected its people. Due to the massive scale of the damage, some volunteers worked independently in which they donated blood, money and picked up victims in their vehicles. Furthermore, they learned the art of consoling the bereaved, hence took some burden off the many families that lost their loved ones. The disaster relief efforts that were witnessed in the aftermath of the quake demonstrated that although the Sichuan Province had failed to prepare adequately for the earthquake, its people and the government were ready to respond
Chinese authorities reported that myriad schools collapsed and houses destroyed, hence leaving many people not only injured but also homeless. Furthermore, the disaster destroyed crops and farms, and since residents relied on farms for their living, several of them lost their primary source of income generation, thus, increasing the poverty levels. Moreover, the quake led to massive infrastructure damages that affected Chinas economic development. In a bid to reconstruct the town and help the victims with shelter and medical care, the government was forced to redirect some of its finances from development projects, hence adversely affecting it economically. In the same way, some people, in particular, whose loved ones perished during the disaster, were devastated and traumatized by the turn of the events, indicating that besides social and economic effects, the quake caused severe psychological impacts. To that end, when considering the cost or impact of one of the most horrifying catastrophes to hit the country, it is prudent to take into consideration social, economic and psychological effects to gain a deeper understanding of the need to act swiftly or differently during similar events in the future.
Figure 3: The white star in the above map shows the location of 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (California Institute of Technology, 2008)
Factors that Contributed to Buildings Collapse
According to Ting-Ting, Xu-Wei, and Gui-Hua (2012), damage to buildings in Wenchuan earthquake was primarily due to poor structural design, unqualified construction quality, and improper location. With respect to the arguments the authors put forward, Bryner (2008) observes that the location where some of the buildings were constructed did not have a solid foundation to withstand earthquake damage. To that end, Bryner (2008) agrees with Ting-Ting et al. (2012) that incorrect building locations were significant factors that led to the falling down of many buildings. In addition, Bryner (2008) adds that before the 1976 earthquake that struck Tangshan, China did not have a satisfactory seismic design code. Therefore, if some Wenchuan buildings were constructed before 1976, there was a high likelihood that the architects did not design them for earthquake forces (Bryner, 2008). This argument clearly indicates although the disaster could not have been avoided, construction authorities in the region could have prevented the level of damage by ensuring that the buildings created in the area had the capability to withstand an earthquake.
Correspondingly, Miyamoto, Gilani, and Wada (2008) note that lack of ductility and well-defined load path also played a role in the collapse of buildings during the earthquake. The authors observe that a myriad of schools employed a hybrid structural system that comprised of masonry columns, hollow precast decks, and concrete beams, and hence the system was to blame for the collapse of many buildings. According to Miyamotoet al. (2008), the earthquake did not spare residential masonry buildings in which some of them were constructed using the hybrid structural system. By comparison, the authors argue that concrete framed, non-ductile reinforced buildings managed to survive the disaster slightly better. Indeed, numerous of such buildings only sustained considerable damage, but they did not collapse. The availability of masonry infills in concrete framed buildings introduced more strength unlike in other buildings in which constructors terminated infills walls at the first floor, hence they introduced weak story at the buildings ground level (Miyamoto et al., 2008). Furthermore, failure of the captive column also contributed to the collapsing of many structures. The fact that both the type and level of damage witnessed in Wenchuan was previously in other parts of the world during earthquakes demonstrates that construction designs and systems are central features of strength of buildings not only during habitation but also during natural calamities.
Figure 4: Wenchuan Location map (Map of China, 2008)
How People Pursued Justice after the Earthquake
Years after the devastating natural disaster, some parents are still pursuing justice for their children who lost their lives when their schools collapsed. However, other families have lost hope over the years particularly due to immense pressure from the Chinese government while some relatives developed post-traumatic stress disorder (Zhang et al., 2012). The parents have petitioned the courts to ask the governments to compensate them, but the government has intimidated them, prompting them to abandon their quest for justice. According Coonan (2009), Amnesty International has requested the Chinese administration to stop threatening relatives and parents of child victims. The international body observed that the authorities were harassing and arresting people who sought justice for the injured and the dead. Moreover, Coonan (2009) claims that parents that were taking petitions to local courts were harassed. Some outsiders that accompanied victims families were either ejected from court buildings before police officers matched to their cars and confiscated any equipment that contained evidence. The harassment by the Chinese government demonstrated that it was not ready to serve justice to the victims of the earthquake.
According to Amnesty International (2009), officials in the province of Sichuan detained relatives and parents for about three weeks for their attempts to inquire answers concerning how their children met their death. Amnesty International (2009) observes that by unlawfully detaining parents whose children lost their lives in the disaster, it was clear that the authorities were creating more misery for these people, some of who lost their property in the earthquake. The non-governmental organization notes that parents were not just denied permission to petition to the authorities but were prevented from asking for compensation from a certain chemical engineering enterprise whose ammonia and sulfur gas had leaked during the quake and delayed rescue missions. Furthermore, Amnesty International (2009) maintains that if it were not for the leaked gas, more children would be saved and this informed decision by some parents to pursue justice from the gas firm but Chinese government prevented them from doing so. Despite the company being a private corporation, the administration protected its officials from being sued, hence justifying many peoples narrative that the government was not concerned about their plight.
Figure 5: The geological setting and slip history of Wenchuan earthquake(Map of China, 2008)
Social Media Reaction to the Sichuan Earthquake
According to Moore (2008), social media played a critical role in disseminating information immediately after the disaster hit Wenchuan. The author notes that the news of the earthquake broke on Twitter as people depended on the social media platform to constantly know and update others what was happening around them. Some people who had Twitter accounts posted maps that showed the epicenter of the earthquake alongside pictures and shot videos of evacuated schools and shaking buildings in Chengdu. Similarly, clips showing school children hiding under their desks and a myriad of workers assembling outside their offices and buildings were posted on YouTube, moments after the disaster took place (Moore, 2008). However, although people used social media to view updates of the rescue mission, others used the platform to spread rumors or misleading information. For instance, some individuals claimed that Chinese government was warned about a possible earthquake, information the authorities vehemently denied. Certainly, the incorrect information would lead to anger by some people who would wonder why the government did not act in time if it had information about a potential natural disaster. To that end, there was a need for the government to monitor closely the use of social media to make sure that some people would not take advantage of the unfortunate situation to cause unnecessary panic and tension among citizens. Although social media contributed massively even in pressuring the government to respond quickly, Moore (2008) warns that excellent approaches need to be identified effectively to integrate and validate situation updates.
How Government of China Tackled Social Media
The Chinese administration did not deny its citizens the permission to use social media platforms to share, enquire or seek updates of the earthquake disaster. As other developed countries across the globe, Chinese authorities acknowledged the power and importance of social media in the society and hence it did not restrict the information that its citizens shared online, provided it was correct and verifiable. Unlike in 1976 during the Tangshan earthquake, the government faced problems, however, in controlling people not to share information that would hurt or add to the misery of parents and relatives whose people died in the calamity. In particular, the government was concerned about irresponsible sharing of videos and images of dead bodies on the internet. These challenges notwithstanding, minutes after the quake hit Wenchuan, social media platforms were alive with eye witness accounts of what transpired. The government informed the public of the damage of the calamity and the progress the rescue mission, but it could deny that the significant number of people relied on social media to get information. However, the authorities ensured that people did not misuse the platforms by spreading false information regarding the disaster such as the number of casualties and the speed of response. Without a doubt, the administration appreciated the role of social media in disaster situations and hence it did not attempt to restrict its people to use what modern technology offers.
Low quality of building infrastructures contributed largely to the devastation as it worsened the disaster. In particular, unreasonable structural design, unqualified construction quality, and improper location played a major role in the loss of lives and damage to property. As the search indicates, some of the buildings that collapsed lacked solid foundation to withstand earthquake damage. In the same way, lack of ductility also played a role in the destruction of buildings during the calamity, and indeed, the loss could have been minimized if construction authorities ensured that all constructors follow an effective design according to the condition and location of a given area. Understandably, however, the buildings that were constructed before 1976 were the most affected because prior to the Tangshan earthquake, the country had not put emphasis on residential and schools buildings that could withstand strong earthquakes. In spite of the challenges witnessed in the aftermath of the earthquake, people and the government learned and appreciated the importance of considering the location of building infrastructures to make sure that they have strong foundations that can survive a similar disaster. The reason is that the choice of location plays a fundamental role in determining whether a structure can survive a natural disaster such as floods, strong winds and earthquakes. Similarly, authorities learn that it is prudent to offer a quick response to natural disasters not only to save lives but also salvage peoples property.
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