By Bin Wu.

Torrential rain occurred in Beijing on the 21st July 2012. Setting a new record since 1951, around 170 mm of rain fell within 16 hours. This caused paralysis of public transport system, affected the lives of 1.9 million people and involved 37 deaths according to official figures released the next day. Through watching official TV reports, I have been impressed by three scenes.

More than 160 thousand local people joined rescue efforts and worked spontaneously. They drove cars, provided food, water, accommodation, or offered their hands for rescue. The public participation in the rescue and relief is particularly important in alleviating the huge pressure in the airport and railway stations where hundreds of thousands of passengers gathered and had nowhere to go.

Having experienced many tragedies and emergency responses in the past (e.g. Wenchuan Earthquake in 2008), the national and local rescue and relief system looks more mature in terms of quick responses, efficient organisation and coordination. Nonetheless, three officers died in the front-line of the rescue, highlighting the need to encourage more government officers to take to their responsibilities. No senior officers appeared in the media for their roles in leading the rescue.

I was impressed by prompt and highly professional responses from official journalists which provided genuine, comprehensive and synchronous images with interactions with experts and local people. Nonetheless, the internet also plays an important role in mobilising public participation in rescue and relief work in addition to the dissemination and discussion of updated information.

Based upon limited observations and information that is not entirely comprehensive, my preliminary reflections are as follows.

Firstly, public safety awareness and risk coping training need to be greatly enhanced. In televised scenes, many people tried to go through the deep water under the bridge-culverts, causing unnecessary risks. Many drivers were in a state of panic and did not know how to escape. One of them died when the car broke down in the water. This raises questions about whether emergency situations and coping strategies should be added into the current driver training and driving examination.

Secondly, an adjustment or improvement of the government emergency plan is needed. A police officer died in the rescue front-line due to touching a live power line. This reflects limitations in the rescue procedure and the roles of relevant sectors including the electricity supply network in this process.

Finally, the flood in Beijing and other cities in China as well has exposed the limitations of infrastructure construction nation-wide in which overwhelming attention has been paid to the high speed development of buildings and roads above ground which is not matched by the capacity of its underground infrastructure including drainage system. It is a time to take a critical review of the limitations of the urban development plan and infrastructure design is necessary for Beijing and other cities.

Bin Wu is Senior Research Fellow of the China Policy Institute.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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