China flood and oil spill response improves. Prevention? Not so much.

A China flood, oil spill, and chemical factory explosion highlighted the country's improved crisis response. But China still faces challenges as it tries to strike a balance between economic growth and protecting the environment.

By , Correspondent

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    Villagers walk in the debris of buildings collapsed in a landslide triggered by heavy rains in Wangong village, Ya'an, in southwest China's Sichuan province, July 28. Flooding this year has overwhelmed reservoirs, swamped towns and cities, and caused landslides that have smothered communities. A large oil spill and plant explosion have also recently added to the Chinese government's problems.
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A string of disasters in China has highlighted the government's improved crisis response, but also the many challenges facing Beijing as it seeks to strike a balance between economic growth and protecting the environment.

A large China oil spill near Dalian was followed on Wednesday by 3,000 chemical barrels being swept swept into a major river network in Jilin Province by flooding. The same day, authorities in Nanjing were struggling with the aftermath of a chemical explosion that killed at least 10 and wounded hundreds more.

Officials and thousands of workers continue to pour into the northeast port city of Dalian to clean up what Greenpeace China has called the nation's worst-ever oil spill. And Southern China continued its battle to contain damage from massive flooding – a bridge in Henan Province crowded with flood-gawkers collapsed Saturday, killing at least 37.

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'Sharp contrast' to the past

The government has moved faster in response to these disasters and allowed far more open reporting on them that in the past, at least in state-run media. The tendency of local officials to keep bad news from Beijing -- and for Beijing to downplay the scale of problems once it was notified – has been replaced by quick notification from the provinces. And China's State Administration of Work Safety now has a rolling ticker of the latest major industrial accidents on its website.

That's a sharp contrast with the situation just a decade ago, when officials were loathe to notify superiors of embarrassing mishaps and the spread of diseases like SARS and Beijing tried to cover up major problems with news blackouts.

But the crises are multiplying too. China has seen nearly double the number of environmental accidents in the first half of this year compared to last year, according to Bloomberg.

Crisis communication better

Just two hours after the Nanjing blast, the state-run Xinhua news service released a short statement on the accident, according to Taiwan's China-friendly Want Daily newspaper. The paper said local officials had quickly notified the Jiangsu Province government, who in turn notified Chinese premier Wen Jiabao.

Dali Yang, head of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, said in a phone interview that Chinese regulations now require local officials to immediately notify the central government of any "major accident" – defined as one resulting in more than seven deaths, he said.

"Local officials face an enormous amount of pressure to try to deal with these accidents," said Yang. They have improved the speed and efficiency of disaster response, but are up against a "breakneck" pace of development and bureaucratic inertia, he said.

"The [2008 Sichuan] earthquake response was an indication of how China has improved in emergency response, and since then local officials have been drafting emergency response plans and practicing responses," said Yang. "But there are always limits to what you can do."

"Poor decisions in the past can accumulate and result in a very dangerous situation," he said, and "often things do not get attention until there is a crisis."

For example, he said, there had long been warnings about the oil storage arrangements in Dalian. And in Nanjing, residents had complained about the presence of the plastics factory in a dense urban area, according to web posts cited by Danwei.org

Yang said that the accidents also raise the issue of the effectiveness of China's environmental impact assessments. "The ministry of environmental protection may invoke these accidents and gain more clout," he said.

Underlying problems

Of China's flood response Russell Leigh Moses wrote in the Wall Street Journal's "China Realtime Report" blog, that "responding to natural disasters appears to bring out some of the better qualities in the bureaucracy here," with mass mobilization and the deployment of troops.

"Focus and consensus come easier, and political infighting gets momentarily sidelined. Dissent and anxiety about the succession process gets placed below the waterline."

But he said the advance planning to fix the underlying problems that generate so many casualties in flooding – including shoddy construction and corrupt local officials -- isn't there yet. "The Party is playing catch-up and clean-up at the same time," Moses wrote.

China's massive oil spill cleanup

A similar dynamic is at work in the oil spill at China's port in Dalian. Yang Ailun, head of climate and energy for Greenpeace China, said in a phone interview that China had done a "good job" in quickly putting out fires from the pipeline explosion and cleaning up the spill.

"The main secret in getting it done so quickly and effectively is the cheap labor here," she said. "They basically hired about 20,000 fisherman and got them to help them clean up the oil. You would not have that in any other country. They worked 24 hours a day, in different shifts," with compensation based on how much oil they collected.

"They [Chinese officials] definitely learned lessons from the Sichuan earthquake and other disasters, so Sichuan had some positive legacy in this regard," she said.

Attention to long-term impact of disaster?

But she said Chinese officials now needed to pay more attention to the long-term impact of such disasters. And the rising number of such catastrophes points to deeply entrenched problems which only a shift in government priorities can change, said Yang.

"China is entering into this phase where you have very large scale disasters," Yang said. "The main reasons are long-term neglect, and fundamental flaws in our economic development model. It's been there for a while, but it has reached a point of explosion, where now you see accident after accident."

She cited out-of-date facilities, poor maintenance, and a failure to learn from past accidents as factors in the latest string of disasters. In the case of the Dalian oil spill, there were "some very apparent design flaws in the way they store oil, which led to the disaster," she said.

"There's a lot of measures they can take to prevent a lot of these situations," she said. "They [the Chinese government] should learn lessons. It's not enough just to focus on economic development, it's also important to ensure that the environment and safety are also high on the agenda."

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