Sichuan Earthquake Case Study Responses To Pick


DateMay 12, 2008 (2008-05-12)
Origin time14:28:01 CST
Duration>2 minutes[1]
Magnitude8.0 Ms[2]/7.9 Mw[3]
Depth19 kilometres (12 mi)
Epicenter31°01′16″N103°22′01″E / 31.021°N 103.367°E / 31.021; 103.367 (Sichuan earthquake) (Yingxiu, Wenchuan County, Ngawa Prefecture, Sichuan)
Areas affectedChina
Total damage$150 billion USD[4]
Max. intensityXI MM/CSIS[6]

149 to 284 major

over 42,719 total[7]

87,587 [8][9] (20th deadliest earthquake of all time)
including 18,392 missing[10][11]

374,643 injured
(as of September 22, 2008 18:18 CST)[12]

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake[13] (Chinese: 汶川大地震; pinyin: Wènchuān dà dìzhèn; literally: "Great Wenchuan earthquake"), also known as the FirstGreat Sichuan earthquake or Wenchuan earthquake, occurred at 14:28:01 China Standard Time on May 12, 2008. Measuring at 8.0 Ms,[2][14][15] the earthquake's epicenter was located 80 kilometres (50 mi) west-northwest of Chengdu, the provincial capital, with a focal depth of 19 km (12 mi).[3] The earthquake was also felt in nearby countries and as far away as both Beijing and Shanghai—1,500 km (930 mi) and 1,700 km (1,060 mi) away—where office buildings swayed with the tremor.[16] Strong aftershocks, some exceeding 6 Ms, continued to hit the area up to several months after the main quake, causing further casualties and damage.

Over 69,000 people lost their lives in the quake, including 68,636 in Sichuan province. 374,176 were reported injured, with 18,222 listed as missing as of July 2008.[12] The earthquake left about 4.8 million people homeless,[17] though the number could be as high as 11 million.[18] Approximately 15 million people lived in the affected area. It was the deadliest earthquake to hit China since the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed at least 240,000 people, and the strongest in the country since the 1950 Chayu earthquake, which registered at 8.5 on the Richter magnitude scale.[19] It is the 21st deadliest earthquake of all time. On November 6, 2008, the central government announced that it would spend 1 trillion RMB (about US $146.5 billion) over the next three years to rebuild areas ravaged by the earthquake,[20] as part of the Chinese economic stimulus program.


According to a study by the China Earthquake Administration (CEA), the earthquake occurred along the Longmenshan Fault, a thrust structure along the border of the Indo-Australian Plate and Eurasian Plate. Seismic activities concentrated on its mid-fracture (known as Yingxiu-Beichuan fracture). The rupture lasted close to 120 seconds, with the majority of energy released in the first 80 seconds. Starting from Wenchuan, the rupture propagated at an average speed of 3.1 kilometers per second 49° toward north east, rupturing a total of about 300 km. Maximum displacement amounted to 9 meters. The focus was deeper than 10 km.[21]

In a United States Geological Survey (USGS) study, preliminary rupture models of the earthquake indicated displacement of up to 9 meters along a fault approximately 240 km long by 20 km deep.[22] The earthquake generated deformations of the surface greater than 3 meters[23] and increased the stress (and probability of occurrence of future events) at the northeastern and southwestern ends of the fault.[23] On May 20, USGS seismologist Tom Parsons warned that there is "high risk" of a major M>7 aftershock over the next weeks or months.[24]

Japanese seismologist Yuji Yagi at the University of Tsukuba said that the earthquake occurred in two stages: "The 250-kilometre (155 mi) Longmenshan Fault tore in two sections, the first one ripping about 6.5 metres (7 yd) followed by a second one that sheared 3.5 metres (4 yd)."[25] His data also showed that the earthquake lasted about two minutes and released 30 times the energy of the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 in Japan, which killed over 6,000 people. He pointed out that the shallowness of the epicenter and the density of population greatly increased the severity of the earthquake. Teruyuki Kato, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo, said that the seismic waves of the quake traveled a long distance without losing their power because of the firmness of the terrain in central China. According to reports from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, the earthquake tremors lasted for "about two or three minutes".[1]


The extent of the earthquake and after shock-affected areas lying north-east, along the Longmen Shan fault.

The Longmen Shan Fault System is situated in the eastern border of the Tibetan Plateau and contains several faults. This earthquake ruptured at least two imbricate structures in Longmen Shan Fault System, i.e. the Beichuan Fault and the Guanxian–Anxian Fault. In the epicentral area, the average slip in Beichuan Fault was about 3.5 metres (11 ft) vertical, 3.5 metres (11 ft) horizontal-parallel to the fault, and 4.8 metres (16 ft) horizontal-perpendicular to the fault. In the area about 30 kilometres (19 mi) northeast of the epicenter, the surface slip on Beichuan Fault was almost purely dextral strike-slip up to about 3 metres (9.8 ft), while the average slip in Guanxian–Anxian Fault was about 2 metres (6 ft 7 in) vertical and 2.3 metres (7 ft 7 in) horizontal.[26]

According to CEA:[21]

"The energy source of the Wenchuan earthquake and Longmenshan's southeast push came from the strike of the Indian Plate onto the Eurasian Plate and its northward push. The inter-plate relative motion caused large scale structural deformation inside the Asian continent, resulting in a thinning crust of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the uplift of its landscape and an eastward extrude. Near the Sichuan Basin, Qinghai-Tibet Plateau's east-northward movement meets with strong resistance from the South China Block, causing a high degree of stress accumulation in the Longmenshan thrust formation. This finally caused a sudden dislocation in the Yingxiu-Beichuan fracture, leading to the violent earthquake of Ms 8.0."[27]

According to the United States Geological Survey:[28]

The earthquake occurred as the result of motion on a northeast striking reverse fault or thrust fault on the northwestern margin of the Sichuan Basin. The earthquake’s epicenter and focal-mechanism are consistent with it having occurred as the result of movement on the Longmenshan Fault or a tectonically related fault. The earthquake reflects tectonic stresses resulting from the convergence of crustal material slowly moving from the high Tibetan Plateau, to the west, against strong crust underlying the Sichuan Basin and southeastern China.

On a continental scale, the seismicity of central and eastern Asia is a result of northward convergence of the Indian Plate against the Eurasian Plate with a velocity of about 50 mm/y. The convergence of the two plates is broadly accommodated by the uplift of the Asian highlands and by the motion of crustal material to the east away from the uplifted Tibetan Plateau. The northwestern margin of the Sichuan Basin has previously experienced destructive earthquakes. The magnitude 7.5 earthquake of August 25, 1933, killed more than 9,300 people.

According to the British Geological Survey:[29]

The earthquake occurred 92 km northwest of the city of Chengdu in eastern Sichuan province and over 1500 km from Beijing, where it was also strongly felt. Earthquakes of this size have the potential to cause extensive damage and loss of life.

The epicenter was in the mountains of the Eastern Margin of Qing-Tibet Plateau at the northwest margin of the Sichuan Basin. The earthquake occurred as a result of motion on a northeast striking thrust fault that runs along the margin of the basin.

The seismicity of central and eastern Asia is caused by the northward movement of the India plate at a rate of 5 cm/year and its collision with Eurasia, resulting in the uplift of the Himalaya and Tibetan plateaux and associated earthquake activity. This deformation also results in the extrusion of crustal material from the high Tibetan Plateaux in the west towards the Sichuan Basin and southeastern China. China frequently suffers large and deadly earthquakes. In August 1933, the magnitude 7.5 Diexi earthquake, about 90 km northeast of today's earthquake, destroyed the town of Diexi and surrounding villages, and caused many landslides, some of which dammed the rivers.

Intensities and damage area[edit]

The map of earthquake intensity published by CEA after surveying 500,000 km2 of the affected area shows a maximum liedu of XI on the China Seismic Intensity Scale (CSIS), described as "very destructive" on the European Macroseismic Scale (EMS) from which CSIS drew reference.[6] (USGS, using the Modified Mercalli intensity scale (CC), also placed maximum intensity at XI, "extreme".) Two south-west-north-east stripes of liedu XI are centered around Yingxiu, Wenchuan (the town closest to the epicenter of the main quake) and Beichuan (the town repeatedly struck by strong aftershocks including one registering Ms 6.1 on Aug 1, 2008), both in Sichuan Province, occupying a total of 2,419 km2. The Yingxiu liedu-XI zone is about 66 km long and 20 km wide along Wenchuan–Dujiangyan–Pengzhou; the Beichuan liedu-XI zone is about 82 km long and 15 km wide along An County–Beichuan–Pingwu. The area with liedu X (comparable to X on EMS, "destructive" and X on MM, "disastrous") spans 3,144 km2. The area affected by earthquakes exceeding liedu VI totals 440,442 km2, occupying an oval 936 km long and 596 km wide, spanning three provinces and one autonomous region.

QLARM (Quake Loss Alarms for Response and Mitigation) issues near-real-time estimates of fatalities and number of injured for earthquakes worldwide. Recent alerts can be found on the web page of the International Institute for Earth Simulation Foundation Such an alert was issued 21 minutes after the May 12 Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. It had at first been assigned M7.5, internationally. This initial underestimate of the magnitude is a known problem with earthquakes of M8 and larger. Based on the M7.5 information, QLARM distributed an email to about 300 recipients estimating that 1,000 to 4,000 fatalities had occurred. After learning that the earthquake may measure M8, QLARM distributed a revised estimate of 40,000 to 100,000 fatalities. This information was distributed within 100 minutes of the Wenchuan earthquake.

The news and official reports of fatalities are often strongly misleading. After the Wenchuan earthquake, officials led the public to believe for more than a week that the fatalities numbered only a fraction of what they really were (Figure 1). At the very beginning, everyone expects the news reports to be an initial count that will grow, not however, after one week. After such a long time, the false news reports take on a reality in their own right and the theoretical loss calculations by experts are discarded.

Once the extent of the rupture of the Wenchuan earthquake became known, QLARM calculated a more detail picture of the losses. Figure 2 shows a map of the expected mean damage of the settlements affected by the Wenchuan earthquake on a scale of 5. The resistance to shaking of buildings in large cities is assumed to be stronger than in villages, therefore the damage and percentage of fatalities in large cities is less than in villages.


Main article: List of 2008 Sichuan earthquake aftershocks

Between 64 and 104 major aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from 4.0 to 6.1, were recorded within 72 hours of the main quake. According to Chinese official counts, "by 12:00 CST, November 6, 2008, there had been 42,719 total aftershocks, of which 246 ranged from 4.0 MS to 4.9 MS, 34 from 5.0 MS to 5.9 MS, and 8 from 6.0 Ms to 6.4 MS; the strongest aftershock measured 6.4 MS."[7] The latest aftershock exceeding M6 occurred on August 5, 2008.

(The Ms 6.1 earthquake on August 30, 2008, in southern Sichuan was not part of this series because it was caused by a different fault. See 2008 Panzhihua earthquake for details.)

Damage and casualties[edit]

The earthquake had a magnitude of 8.0 Ms[2][14][15] and 7.9 Mw.[3][21] The epicenter was in Wenchuan County, Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, 80 km west/northwest of the provincial capital of Chengdu, with its main tremor occurring at 14:28:01.42 China Standard Time (06:28:01.42 UTC),[30] on May 12, 2008, lasting for around 2 minutes; in the quake almost 80% of buildings were destroyed.

Extent of the tremors[edit]

Places ordered by distance from epicenter (or time of propagation) :

Immediate aftermath[edit]

Office buildings in Shanghai's financial district, including the Jin Mao Tower and the Hong Kong New World Tower, were evacuated.[40] A receptionist at the Tibet Hotel in Chengdu said things were "calm" after the hotel evacuated its guests.[41] Meanwhile, workers at a Ford plant in Sichuan were evacuated for about 10 minutes.[42]Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport was shut down, and the control tower and regional radar control evacuated. One SilkAir flight was diverted and landed in Kunming as a result.[43]Cathay Pacific delayed both legs of its quadruple daily Hong Kong to London route due to this disruption in air traffic services. Chengdu Shuangliu Airport reopened later on the evening of May 12, offering limited service as the airport began to be used as a staging area for relief operations.[44]

Reporters in Chengdu said they saw cracks on walls of some residential buildings in the downtown areas, but no buildings collapsed.[45] Many Beijing office towers were evacuated, including the building housing the media offices for the organizers of the 2008 Summer Olympics. None of the Olympic venues were damaged.[36] Meanwhile, a cargo train carrying 13 petrol tanks derailed in Hui County, Gansu, and caught on fire after the rail was distorted.[46]

All of the highways into Wenchuan, and others throughout the province, were damaged, resulting in delayed arrival of the rescue troops.[47][48] In Beichuan County, 80% of the buildings collapsed according to Xinhua News.[49] In the city of Shifang, the collapse of two chemical plants led to leakage of some 80 tons of liquid ammonia, with hundreds of people reported buried.[50] In the city of Dujiangyan, south-east of the epicenter, a whole school collapsed with 900 students buried and fewer than 60 survived. The Juyuan Middle School, where many teenagers were buried, was excavated by civilians and cranes.[51] Dujiangyan is home of the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, an ancient water diversion project which is still in use and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The project's famous Fish Mouth was cracked but not severely damaged otherwise.[52]

Both the Shanghai Stock Exchange and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange suspended trading of companies based in southwestern China. Copper rose over speculations that production in southwestern China may be affected,[54] and oil prices dropped over speculations that demand from China would fall.[55]

Immediately after the earthquake event, mobile and terrestrial telecommunications were cut to the affected and surrounding area, with all internet capabilities cut to the Sichuan area too. Elements of telecommunications were restored by the government piece by piece over the next number of months as the situation in the Sichuan province gradually improved. Eventually, a handful of major news and media websites were made accessible online in the region, albeit with dramatically pared back webpages.

China Mobile had more than 2,300 base stations suspended due to power disruption or severe telecommunication traffic congestion. Half of the wireless communications were lost in the Sichuan province. China Unicom's service in Wenchuan and four nearby counties was cut off, with more than 700 towers suspended.[56][57][58]

Initially, officials were unable to contact the Wolong National Nature Reserve, home to around 280 giant pandas.[59] However, the Foreign Ministry later said that a group of 31 British tourists visiting the Wolong Panda Reserve in the quake-hit area returned safe and uninjured to Chengdu. Nonetheless, the well-being of an even greater number of pandas in the neighbouring panda reserves remained unknown. Five security guards at the reserve were killed by the earthquake.[60] Six pandas escaped after their enclosures were damaged. By May 20, two pandas at the reserve were found to be injured, while the search continued for another two adult pandas that went missing after the quake.[61] By May 28, 2008, one panda was still missing.[62] The missing panda was later found dead under the rubble of an enclosure.[63] Nine-year-old Mao Mao, a mother of five at the breeding center, was discovered on Monday, her body crushed by a wall in her enclosure. Panda keepers and other workers placed her remains in a small wooden crate and buried her outside the breeding centre.

The Zipingpu Hydropower Plant (simplified Chinese: 紫坪铺水库; traditional Chinese: 紫坪鋪水庫) located 20 km east of the epicenter was damaged. A recent inspection indicated that the damage was less severe than initially feared, and it remains structurally stable and safe.[64] However, the Tulong reservoir upstream is in danger of collapse. About 2,000 troops have been allocated to Zipingpu, trying to release the pressure through spillway. In total, 391 dams, most of them small, were reported damaged by the quake.[65]


According to Chinese state officials, the quake caused 69,180 known deaths including 68,636 in Sichuan province; 18,498 people are listed as missing, and 374,176 injured, but these figures may further increase as more reports come in.[12][71][needs update] This estimate includes 158 earthquake relief workers who were killed in landslides as they tried to repair roads.[72]

One rescue team reported only 2,300 survivors from the town of Yingxiu in Wenchuan County, out of a total population of about 9,000.[73] 3,000 to 5,000 people were killed in Beichuan County, Sichuan alone; in the same location, 10,000 people were injured and 80% of the buildings were destroyed. The old county seat of Beichuan was abandoned and preserved as part of the Beichuan Earthquake Museum. Eight schools were toppled in Dujiangyan.[74] A 56-year-old was killed in Dujiangyan during a rescue attempt on the Lingyanshan Ropeway, where due to the earthquake 11 tourists from Taiwan had been trapped inside cable cars since May 13.[75] A 4-year-old boy named Zhu Shaowei (traditional Chinese: 朱紹維; simplified Chinese: 朱绍维; pinyin: Zhū Shàowéi) was also killed in Mianzhu City when a house collapsed on him[76] and another was reported missing.[12]

Experts point out that the earthquake hit an area that has been largely neglected and untouched by China's economic rise. Health care is poor in inland areas such as Sichuan, highlighting the widening gap between prosperous urban dwellers and struggling rural people.[77]Vice Minister of HealthGao Qiang told reporters in Beijing that the "public health care system in China is insufficient."[77] The Vice Minister of Health also suggested that the government would pick up the costs of care to earthquake victims, many of whom have little or no insurance: "The government should be responsible for providing medical treatment to them," he said.[77]

In terms of school casualties, thousands of school children died due to shoddy construction. In Mianyang City, seven schools collapsed, burying at least 1,700 people. At least 7,000 school buildings throughout the province collapsed. Another 700 students were buried in a school in Hanwang. At least 600 students and staff died at Juyuan Elementary School. Up to 1,300 children and teachers died at Beichuan Middle School.[78] According to Tan Zuoren, 5,600 pupils were dead or missing from the 64 schools Tan investigated in the quake zone. Tan was detained after he published such a casualties number.[79]

Details of school casualties had been under non-governmental investigation since December 2008 by volunteers including artist and architect Ai Weiwei, who had been constantly posting updates on his blog since March 2009.[80] The official tally of students killed in the earthquake was not released until May 7, 2009, almost a year after the earthquake. According to the state-run Xinhua news agency, the earthquake killed 5,335 students and left another 546 children disabled.[81] Some parents believe the real figure is twice that officially cited.[82] The executive vice governor of SichuanWei Hong said the student death toll is 19,065.[83] Mr. Wei noted the toll was incomplete as the officials were still tallying the final number.[84] In the aftermath of the earthquake, the Chinese government declared that parents who had lost their only children would get free treatment from fertility clinics to reverse vasectomies and tubal ligations conducted by family planning authorities.[85]

Property damage[edit]

The earthquake left at least 5 million people without housing, although the number could be as high as 11 million.[86] Millions of livestock and a significant amount of agriculture were also destroyed, including 12.5 million animals, mainly birds. In the Sichuan province a million pigs died out of 60 million total.[87]Catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide reported official estimates of insurers' losses at US$1 billion from the earthquake; estimated total damage exceeded US$20 billion. It values Chengdu, at the time having an urban population of 4.5 million people, at around US$115 billion, with only a small portion covered by insurance.[88]

Reginald DesRoches, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Georgia Tech, pointed out that the massive damage of properties and houses in the earthquake area was because China did not create an adequate seismic design code until after the devastating 1976 Tangshan earthquake. DesRoches said: "If the buildings were older and built prior to that 1976 earthquake, chances are they weren't built for adequate earthquake forces."[89]

In the days following the disaster, an international reconnaissance team of engineers was dispatched to the region to make a detailed preliminary survey of damaged buildings. Their findings show a variety of reasons why many constructions failed to withstand the earthquake.[90]

News reports indicate that the poorer, rural villages were hardest hit. Swaminathan Krishnan, assistant professor of civil engineering and geophysics at the California Institute of Technology said: "the earthquake occurred in the rural part of China. Presumably, many of the buildings were just built; they were not designed, so to speak."[89] Swaminathan Krishnan further added: "There are very strong building codes in China, which take care of earthquake issues and seismic design issues. But many of these buildings presumably were quite old and probably were not built with any regulations overseeing them."[89]

Even with the five largest cities in Sichuan suffering only minor damage from the quake, some estimates of the economic loss run higher than US$75 billion,[91] making the earthquake one of the costliest natural disasters in Chinese history.

Later casualties[edit]

Strong aftershocks continued to strike even months after the main quake. On May 25, an aftershock of 6.0 Mw (6.4 Ms according to CEA) hit northeast of the original earthquake's epicenter, in Qingchuan County, Sichuan, causing eight deaths, 1,000 injuries, and destroying thousands of buildings.[92] On May 27, two aftershocks, one 5.2 Mw in Qingchuan County and one 5.7 Mw in Ningqiang County, Shaanxi, led to the collapse of more than 420,000 homes and injured 63 people.[93] The same area suffered two more aftershocks of 5.6 and 6.0 Ms (5.8 and 5.5 Mw, respectively, according to USGS) on July 23, resulting in 1 death, 6 serious injuries, the collapse of hundreds of homes and damaging kilometers of highways.[94][95]Pingwu County and Beichuan County, Sichuan, also northeast of Wenchuan and close to the epicenter of a 7.2 Ms earthquake in 1976, suffered a 6.1 Ms aftershock (5.7 Mw according to USGS) on August 1; it caused 2 deaths, 345 injuries, the collapse of 707 homes, damage to over 1,000 homes, and blocked 25 kilometres (16 mi) of country roads.[96][97][98] As late as August 5, yet another aftershock of 6.1 Ms (6.2 Mw according to USGS) hit Qingchuan, Sichuan, causing 1 death, 32 injuries, telecommunication interruptions, and widespread hill slides blocking roads in the area including a national highway.[99]

Government data[edit]

Executive vice governor Wei Hong confirmed on November 21, 2008, that more than 90,000 people in total were dead or missing in the earthquake. He stated that 200,000 homes had been rebuilt, and 685,000 were under reconstruction, but 1.94 million households were still without permanent shelter. 1,300 schools had been reconstructed, with initial relocation of 25 townships, including Beichuan and Wenchuan, two of the most devastated areas. The government spent $441 billion on relief and reconstruction efforts.[100][101]

Rescue efforts[edit]

General Secretary and PresidentHu Jintao announced that the disaster response would be rapid.[102] Just 90 minutes after the earthquake, PremierWen Jiabao, who has an academic background in geomechanics, flew to the earthquake area to oversee the rescue work.[103] Soon afterward, the Ministry of Health stated that it had sent ten emergency medical teams to Wenchuan County. On the same day, the Chengdu Military Region Command dispatched 50,000 troops and armed police to help with disaster relief work in Wenchuan County.[104] However, due to the rough terrain and close proximity of the quake's epicenter, the soldiers found it very difficult to get help to the rural regions of the province.[105] Premier Wen encouraged the People's Liberation Army by saying, “It is the people who have raised you. It’s up to you to see what to do! Even with two legs, you must walk in there." "(是人民养育了你们, 你们自己看着办! 你们就是靠双腿走, 也要给我走进去)."[106]

The National Disaster Relief Commission initiated a "Level II emergency contingency plan", which covers the most serious class of natural disasters. The plan rose to Level I at 22:15 CST, May 12.[107]

An earthquake emergency relief team of 184 people (consisting of 12 people from the State Seismological Bureau, 150 from the Beijing Military Area Command, and 22 from the Armed Police General Hospital) left Beijing from Nanyuan Airport late May 12 in two military transport planes to travel to Wenchuan County.[108]

Many rescue teams, including that of the Taipei Fire Department from Taiwan, were reported ready to join the rescue effort in Sichuan as early as Wednesday. However, the Red Cross Society of China said that (on May 13) "it was inconvenient currently due to the traffic problem to the hardest hit areas closest to the epicenter."[109] The Red Cross Society of China also stated that the disaster areas need tents, medical supplies, drinking water and food; however it recommended donating cash instead of other items, as it had not been possible to reach roads that were completely damaged or places that were blocked off by landslides.[110] Landslides continuously threatened the progress of a search and rescue group of 80 men, each carrying about 40 kg of relief supplies, from a motorized infantry brigade under commander Yang Wenyao, as they tried to reach the ethnically Tibetan village of Sier at a height of 4000 m above sea level in Pingwu county. The extreme terrain conditions precluded the use of helicopter evacuation, and over 300 of the Tibetan villagers were stranded in their demolished village for five days without food and water before the rescue group finally arrived to help the injured and stranded villagers down the mountain.[111]

Persistent heavy rain and landslides in Wenchuan County and the nearby area badly affected rescue efforts.[112] At the start of rescue operations on May 12, 20 helicopters were deployed for the delivery of food, water, and emergency aid, and also the evacuation of the injured and reconnaissance of quake-stricken areas. By 17:37 CST on May 13, a total of over 15,600 troops and militia reservists from the Chengdu Military Region had joined the rescue force in the heavily affected areas.[113] A commander reported from Yingxiu Town, Wenchuan, that around 3,000 survivors were found, while the status of the other inhabitants (around 9,000) remained unclear.[114] The 1,300 rescuers reached the epicenter, and 300 pioneer troops reached the seat of Wenchuan at about 23:30 CST.[115] By 12:17 CST, May 14, 2008, communication in the seat of Wenchuan was partly revived.[116] On the afternoon of May 14, 15 Special Operations Troops, along with relief supplies and communications gear, parachuted into inaccessible Mao County, northeast of Wenchuan.[117]

By May 15, Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the deployment of an additional 90 helicopters, of which 60 were to be provided by the PLAAF, and 30 were to be provided by the civil aviation industry, bringing the total number of aircraft deployed in relief operations by the air force, army, and civil aviation to over 150, resulting in the largest non-combat airlifting operation in People's Liberation Army history.[118]

Beijing accepted the aid of the Tzu Chi Foundation from Taiwan late on May 13. Tzu Chi was the first force from outside the People's Republic of China to join the rescue effort.[119] China stated it would gratefully accept international help to cope with the quake.[120][121]

A direct chartered cargo flight was made by China Airlines from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport to Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport sending some 100 tons of relief supplies donated by the Tzu Chi Foundation and the Red Cross Society of Taiwan to the affected areas. Approval from mainland Chinese authorities was sought, and the chartered flight departed Taipei at 17:00 CST, May 15 and arrived in Chengdu by 20:30 CST.[122] A rescue team from the Red Cross in Taiwan was also scheduled to depart Taipei on a Mandarin Airlines direct chartered flight to Chengdu at 15:00 CST on May 16.[123]

Francis Marcus of the International Federation of the Red Cross praised the Chinese rescue effort as "swift and very efficient" in Beijing on Tuesday. But he added the scale of the disaster was such that "we can't expect that the government can do everything and handle every aspect of the needs".[121] The Economist noted that China reacted to the disaster "rapidly and with uncharacteristic openness", contrasting it with Burma's secretive response to Cyclone Nargis, which devastated that country 10 days before the earthquake.[124]

On May 16, rescue groups from South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Russia and Taiwan arrived to join the rescue effort.[125] The United States shared some of its satellite images of the quake-stricken areas with Chinese authorities.[126] During the weekend, the US sent into China two U.S. Air Force C-17's carrying supplies, which included tents and generators.[127] Xinhua reported 135,000 Chinese troops and medics were involved in the rescue effort across 58 counties and cities.

The Internet was extensively used for passing information to aid rescue and recovery efforts. For example, the official news agency Xinhua set up an online rescue request center in order to find the blind spots of disaster recovery.[128] After knowing that rescue helicopters had trouble landing into the epicenter area in Wenchuan, a student proposed a landing spot online and it was chosen as the first touchdown place for the helicopters[not in citation given].

The USGS provided a map of Asia in May 2008, which showed a total of 122 earthquakes occurring on the continent. The large red square near the center of the map depicts the 7.9 magnitude Chengdu quake in the Sichuan province.
Map showing the location of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and all the aftershocks following it through May 28, 2008
A USGS map shows that dozens of aftershocks occurred in a small region following the quake.
Figure 1: Official fatality reports for the Wenchuan M8 earthquake as a function of time. Squares show fatalities, triangles show the sum of fatalities plus missing persons, which equaled the number of fatalities in the end. The diamond is the QLARM estimate 100 minutes after the earthquake, with the range of possible values given by the solid, vertical line through the diamond. The horizontal dash-dotted line indicates the average value of fatalities calculated by QLARM.
Figure 2: Map of settlements with the estimated mean damage due to the Wenchuan earthquake modeled as a line rupture extending as far as the aftershocks.
On the night of May 12, residents of Chengdu worried about potential aftershocks gathered in the street to avoid staying in buildings.
The outside of a warehouse in disarray following the earthquake.
The Miaoziping Bridge of Dujiangyan –Wenchuan Expressway was damaged in the earthquake.
A bank building in Beichuan after the earthquake. A girl was found alive in the ruins 102 hours (4 days, 6 hours) after the earthquake.[53]
A single door frame bearing a portrait of Chairman Mao remained standing in a pile of debris.
Rain was among the many problems affecting the area in the aftermath of the earthquake. Here, a group of onlookers examine a collapsed building in the rain.
Persistent rain, as well as rock slides and a layer of mud coating on the main roads, such as the one above, hindered rescue officials' efforts to enter the target region.
Falling debris, such as the object that landed on this vehicle, hindered rescue workers' progress as they attempted to cross the mountain.
This elderly woman was rescued and placed on a stretcher after being trapped for over 50 hours.

At 2:28pm on 12 May 2008, a powerful earthquake struck China’s Sichuan Province. Some 87,500 people were killed, 45.5m affected and 14.4m displaced. Economic losses were estimated at $86 billion, with 21m buildings damaged. According to a recent DFID report, the earthquake drove an estimated 10m people below the poverty line, with overall poverty in badly affected areas increasing from 11% to 35% of the population. Despite the extent of the devastation, this earthquake was not China’s first experience with natural disaster. In fact, four of the ten most destructive earthquakes on record have occurred in the country, giving China extensive experience in coping with such emergencies – experience that was put to good use in the response to the Sichuan earthquake.

The role of the state in the earthquake response

The response to the earthquake was dominated by the Chinese government. Although the government invited international humanitarian assistance, few international NGOs engaged directly in emergency response, for a number of reasons. First, Sichuan was probably not a priority for organisations already involved in responding to concurrent disasters including Cyclone Nargis, which made landfall in neighbouring Myanmar just ten days before the earthquake. Second, lack of access and local experience may have prevented some INGOs from initiating operations in Sichuan. Third, in the context of an economic boom with over 10% annual growth since 2002, it is possible that international actors believed that the Chinese government had the capacity to respond. Although full recovery remains a distant reality for many, the Chinese state-led response to the Sichuan earthquake has generally been characterised as efficient and comprehensive. According to the government, despite the extent of the devastation, disease outbreaks were avoided, populations in danger from subsequent flooding or landslides were safely relocated, medical services were generally restored rapidly and a return to the baseline mortality rate was achieved relatively quickly. The direct provision of aid by the Chinese military was a key element in the emergency response phase. Officials reported that, within 14 minutes of the earthquake, the central government had dispatchedthe People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the affected areas, and within days 113,000 soldiers and armed police had been mobilised. Of the nine government working groups set up for the relief effort, six were supported by the military.

One challenge to learning from the earthquake response is that data has not been made widely available by the government. For example, in the health sector Xinhua News reported that, as of late May, 45,000 medical workers were contributing to care following the earthquake, with 650 devoted to epidemic control. A Health Ministry representative also announced that the relief effort had eliminated the risk of a disease outbreak, and had even brought about a decline in infectious disease incidence in the worst-hit areas, compared to previous years. Unfortunately, evidence is not offered to support this statement, or similar statements in other sectors. Information from the few active organisations (including Médecins Sans Frontières, UNCEF, AmeriCares Foundation and Oxfam-Hong Kong) only capture the relatively small-scale activities of these agencies.

While working for a US-based organisation in two of the worst-affected counties in Sichuan directly following the earthquake, over the course of three months I encountered no other international NGO working on the ground. This is consistent with the general pattern of minimal INGO engagement in the emergency response. To accomplish our mission to re-establish referral care and provide urgently needed medical supplies, I coordinated all efforts in direct partnership with government agencies and the provincial and county-level Health Bureaus. In my day-to-day work, it became clear that the overall success of the government’s response was made possible by its authoritarian position, its experience of managing large population movements and natural disasters and the rapid deployment of the military. These three elements enabled the government to avoid or minimise many of the problems common to disaster response.

Mitigation strategies included an immediate emphasis on controlling infectious disease through widespread medical care and surveillance, the provision of tents for shelter (albeit insufficient in number at the outset and eventually upgraded to temporary, prefabricated structures), maintenance of security and the rule of law through substantial police and military deployments, traffic and supply-chain management at the regional and local level, as well as the triage of patients, the deployment of qualified volunteers and the efficient management of in-kind donations. For instance, as large quantities of unsolicited foreign medicines and supplies accumulated in airport warehouses (donated primarily by organisations without a physical presence in Sichuan), the provincial health bureau coordinated with the government body in charge of volunteers to assign pharmacology students on holiday to sort, translate and test these donations. Additionally, the movement of people was strictly regulated in the affected areas. For months, police and military roadblocks prevented non-essential personnel from entering the disaster zone (personnel also sprayed traffic passing through with disinfectant in the belief that this would reduce the risk of disease). These authoritarian measures largely succeeded in saving lives and reducing the secondary disasters of disease, flooding and damage from strong aftershocks; however, these results came at the expense of personal liberties, access to affected areas and, in some cases, the unquestioned acceptance of sub-standard living conditions.

Although the Chinese and foreign press have reported outrage among some parents who lost children in collapsed schools, the overall reaction of direct beneficiaries as regards the government aid they received was outwardly positive. Affected populations worked to reconstruct markets and establish a home in their government-issued tents, while awaiting further instructions from the local authorities. This differs from my experience in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake, where there was an elevated sense of anxiety, especially in remote rural areas. For example, in the Allai Valley of NWFP (population around 100,000), insufficient assistance saw virtually every family electing to migrate to camps at a lower elevation or moving to live with relatives elsewhere. Although some seasonal migration takes place annually in the region, post-earthquake migration occurred on a large scale, and was even encouraged by some NGOs. By contrast, the millions of people affected by the Sichuan earthquake, even those living in mountainous rural areas, stayed in close proximity to their destroyed homes.

In the days and months following the earthquake, many familiar disaster response tools and mechanisms were not utilised: there were no cluster meetings, and the Sphere Standards and other guidelines common in the humanitarian community were not in evidence. Instead, a coordinated response was achieved through the government’s hierarchical approach, and decisions followed the chain of command from national to provincial and down to the prefecture and county levels. In terms of coordination, after working side-by-side with my health bureau counterparts daily for nearly three months, I did not observe a single complaint about unwarranted time spent meeting donors or international aid groups (though there were complaints about the unaccompanied relief material pouring into the provincial airport and bonded warehouses). Unlike the direction eventually chosen by the government of Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake, the Chinese authorities did not immediately establish a parallel relief agency. Instead, relief activities were partitioned along the lines of the cluster approach, with the formation of working groups roughly corresponding with government agencies – an important approach for ongoing coherence in policy and practice.

Another partnership strategy used in the aftermath of the earthquake which may prove a model for long-term recovery was the ‘twinning’ of several badly affected counties and cities with other Chinese provinces and municipalities. These partnerships aimed to assist affected areas with resources, personnel and moral support for recovery. Teams of doctors, public health professionals and sanitation and disease control experts were immediately dispatched to the affected partner county; a reported 1–3% of the annual gross domestic product of sponsor provinces was pledged towards long-term recovery efforts in the affected county for at least three years. For example, Wenchuan County, the epicentre of the earthquake, was paired with wealthy Guangdong Province for long-term reconstruction assistance, including the provision of medical personnel to replace staff lost in the earthquake, and the training of Wenchuan-based staff in teaching hospitals in Guangdong.

The state-led response focused on efficiency in providing resources and services to the largest number of people possible. However, this came at a price; for instance, in order to get food to everyone who needed it nutritionally deficient instant noodles were provided for days on end in some locations. Shelter could not be manufactured quickly enough (despite temporary state seizure of suitable textile factories), resulting in up to 12 individuals sharing one family-size tent. The absence of water-borne diseases may actually be attributed to a culture of boiling water, rather than the government’s pervasive disinfection campaign. It is clear that action to protect against a secondary disaster did not come from abroad but from within China. Although the state deserves praise for its handling of the response, there are areas for improvement.

Lessons for the future

In the aftermath of every major recent natural disaster, from the Indian Ocean tsunami to the Pakistan earthquake and even the cyclone in Myanmar, a deluge of assistance from international non-governmental organisations has had a significant impact. This was not the case in China, where very little international assistance was provided and the response was very largely state-led – a vast relief effort launched by the Chinese government and carried out by hundreds of thousands of soldiers, civil servants and civilian volunteers. The government’s approach to the emergency response was effective in several respects; the setting of clear criteria and appropriate restrictions on unsolicited in-kind medical or other supplies, for instance, led to the more efficient use of resources and eased the supply-chain bottlenecks common in other disasters of similar magnitude, and overall the response was crucial in saving many lives. At the same time, however, greater efforts could have been made to enlist the support of specialised international agencies in specific areas, including emergency shelter, livelihoods and health. In the health sector, for instance, very little attention was paid to psychosocial and mental health programmes, especially among elderly people, who may well have benefited from specialised support from the humanitarian community. Finally, although the state deserves praise for its handling of the response, a lack of transparency in terms of specific data and details of the response have concealed many of these successes, as well as obscuring areas for improvement.

Brian Hoyer is an independent consultant. His email address is


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