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Lessons from Lushan and Wenchuan quakes


Editor's Note:

Five years ago, a magnitude-8 earthquake in Wenchuan, Sichuan on May 12, 2008 took tens of thousands lives.

On April 20, 2013 Lushan County of Ya’an, a prefecture-level city about 180 km away from Wenchuan, was hit by a magnitude-7 earthquake. As of April 24, 196 have been killed and 383,000 people affected by the disaster.

For a country which is no stranger to natural disasters, what is the difference in the way we are handling the Ya’an disaster to the one in Wenchuan in 2008?  On the 5th anniversary of Wenchuan quake, takes a retrospective look at the two disasters and draws some lessons.

Graphics by Steve Zhao/

Three changes from Wenchuan to Ya’an

1. Rise of monitoring and civil relief efforts

A volunteer (right) sends food and drink to Lushan after the quake. Photos:

  • Earthquake early warning system in Chengdu

At 8:02:24 on April 20, 28 seconds before the destructive power of the huge seismic shear wave reached Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, an early warning system at the Institute of Chengdu Hi-tech Disaster Reduction began to report the upcoming earthquake and initiated a countdown.

According to a report in a seismology paper in China, a 20-second alert can help reduce the casualty rate by 63 percent. 

It is understood that this institute was established in 2008 in the wake of the Wenchuan earthquake. It has set up an early warning test network covering an aftershock area of more than 20,000 square kilometers which includes 18 cities and counties as well as the border zone of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. It has issued over 110 early warnings for aftershocks since April 15, 2011.

  • Wechat and Weibo

In the year 2008, there was no Weibo in China’s social networking space, nor Wechat, the hottest instant messaging software on people’s mobile phones. 

This time, the two mediums played a huge role after earthquake as the “technological” tools for relief.

Wang Hantao ( 王汉涛 ), a resident from Chengdu now working in Beijing, tried to call his family in the city as well as relatives and friends in Meishan ( 眉山市 ), a city neighboring Ya’an, as soon as he learned about the earthquake. But, as was the case during Wenchuan earthquake, the phone calls were difficult to get through as a large number of incoming calls and text messages from all over the country at the same time clogged the telecommunication networks. 

Anxious to know about the situation at home, Wang turned to Wechat and soon got the response because Wechat only uses GPRS traffic.One minute after the disaster, users from the disaster area posted messages for help on Weibo.
On the same day when the earthquake happened, Chinese microblogging operators quickly launched their earthquake relief channels. Each microblogging community highlighted information and links to the latest disaster reports, missing persons, donations and other information.

  • Data sharing

Google, which first provided the missing person platform service in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, was joined together this time by many Chinese domestic websites. In facing the disaster, integration of data on missing persons also contributed to cooperation among the bitter Chinese Internet rivals.  

Qihoo 360, China’s largest network security company, was first to respond and called on others to put aside the existing differences and exchange their platform data. 

Baidu and other major Internet companies responded quickly, so that on April 22, two days after the earthquake, missing person platforms of major Chinese internet companies started to use shared data. The operation saved the families of the victims from going through overwhelmingly scattered information.

  • Communication efficiency

As of April 22, 12 Chinese express companies including China Post and SF( 顺丰 ), had announced to open a green channel for relief supplies and free delivery services to the disaster area.At the same time, major Chinese media urged to the public that "disaster relief efforts do not have to be on the spot, your concern is a way of support!" which, in a certain degree, decreased the incidence of misguided public relief actions.

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