The Logistics Behind the Sichuan Earthquake Relief Efforts

Monday, May 26, 2008 1:39

For the last two weeks, the Sichuan earthquake has been something that I have been intimately involved with. Whether it was working web designers setting up the Hands On Chengdu site, speaking to firms looking to donate money, watching the endless news cycles, or working with NGOs looking to ship 5tons of milk.. there hasn’t been much time for me to think about much else… and to ease myself back into the world of business I thought I would write about the logistics situation that I have been witnessing… and at times apart of

In short, I think a lot of lessons can be learned from how people react logistically to a disaster…. and few lessons are more important than the critical need for a strong logistics infrastructure during times of need. This was a point made clear to me while watching the CNN coverage of the first aid shipments reaching those stranded in New Orleans, and during the last 2 weeks I have come to fully appreciate the process itself.

  • The massive mobilization of (physical assets (planes, trains, cranes, and trucks)
  • The need for forward stocking of equipment (medical, rescue, food, water, etc)
  • The ability to commandeer civilian aircraft so that 100,000 military and several tens of thousands of medical personnel can be moved
  • and the ability to somehow coordinate that when you have paratroopers jumping through rain clouds, landslides taking out roads, and trains full of relief goods jumping the track.

It was in my mind an amazing efforts, and every time I think of just how things moved in China over the last few weeks I was even more amazed… and my level of understanding when it comes to the difficulties of coordinating such a large process… one I am not sure anyone thought they would have to ever carry out.

To start with, China’s initial reaction was one of instant mobilization – beginning with the Vice Premier himself getting on a plane within a couple hours of the crisis with his military commanders in tow. For me, there were two obvious reasons for the speed of his arrival in the affected areas: 1) To make sure the public knew that the central government was on top of it and 2) To make sure local leaders know that he was personally going to be overseeing the efforts.

and with that, ever piece of logistical equipment moved from their traditional West to east trajectory to East to west. Military aircraft, trains, trucks, and helicopters all began to converge on the area en force (one report I saw on CCTV 9 mentioned some 300 747 flight between Beijing and Shanghai carrying personnel and supplies)… 100,000 troops.. 445,000 tents… 300 tons of airlifted goods by a single multinational logistics provider.. water.. high protein biscuits.. and the random flight of instant noodles from Dubai. It was an all out effort.

Under these conditions, I think it is safe to say that things were going to get lost and mis allocated – and there are plenty of reports from the area that things were – but to try and replicate the same effort anywhere else would have been just impossible.

Where things have been really difficult though has been on the ground. China has planned nearly everything to the Nth degree for hte last 30 years, and road building has been one of the most micromanaged of projects. However, as this Xinhua report shows, the road system was pummeled :

Some sections of seven expressways were severely damaged, causing an economic loss of 6 billion yuan. The bases, tunnels and bridges of five national highways and 10 provincial highways were also destroyed, impeding the traffic and causing a loss of 22.52 billion yuan.

In the rural areas, more than 17,000 km of roads were demolished, causing 16.2 billion yuan in loss.

Thirty-three roads in quake-stricken areas remained blocked. A basic recovery of traffic infrastructure damaged in the province would take three years, said Li Chengyun, vice governor of Sichuan at a press conference on Friday.

Where the above becomes important is that like the great 93 flood in Missouri, nearly all the major roads into the affected areas have severely limited traffic, and according to one Logistics GM I spoke with getting even a 20′ container into the various counties, townships, and villages is nearly impossible at this point.. and will be for some time. which means, that many donated goods are still being held in more accessible cities for now, and that many in the affected areas have yet to receive large quantities of supplies.

Case in point – tents. when speaking to some friends about the tent situation, I was told that there are a number of student and mountaineering groups who are hiking into the worst hit villages on their own, but because they are really hiking in, they have been unable to deliver the large tents because of the weight (easily surpassing 100 pounds) .

Another interesting logistics hurdle was that initially when the call for blood donations out, and people filled the blood banks to the brim, it was still technically not legal to transport blood from Beijing to Chengdu (or Beijing to anywhere for that matter) because there are legal restrictions on moving blood across provincial lines. an issue that gets back to historical issues of blood transport and the need for cold chain in China.

now with almost 2 weeks passing, a lot of questions are beginning to come out about the effort, and I can only hope that people who ask questions take into account a little of the above.

Surely things were going to get lost, troops sent without everything they needed, and some stuff was probably lost in the system as the log jam of goods landed in Sichuan… but with an unprecedented response at every level of the effort, it would be impossible to avoid, and I think that wihle there are some valuable lessons to be learned…

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2 Responses to “The Logistics Behind the Sichuan Earthquake Relief Efforts”

  1. Robert Vance says:

    May 29th, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    You seem to be pretty well connected with the earthquake rescue effort. I am interested to hear what you have to say about the government’s use of the massive donations that have been collected? Do you think that the money is reaching the survivors? I wrote a post yesterday about possible misuse of government funds based on some information that I received from Chinese friends.

  2. Rich says:

    May 30th, 2008 at 1:44 am

    Hi Robert,

    I am working on a post for this at Crossroads where I will address this in a little more details, but my general thoughts are:

    1) It is important to keep in mind the size and scope of the effort. Things will get lost, logistics will fail, and expectations of recipients are going to be higher than what the gov’t can provide at this time

    2) There are stories of goods not being delivered at the local level, and I have seen some reports of officials being removed for hording.

    3) Keep in mind that 40M RMB going to a highway, is not 40M RMB going towards rebuilding

    4) I think it is important to understand that while there is certainly a problem of mis allocation of funds in general in China, the Red Cross funding is separate from this, and that Bejing has already set up a team to audit the funding.. and a hotline to allow residents to report abuse.

    I think it is important to keep in mind that we are in the third week of this, and that many involved in the relief effort are still just working to get their hands around this. There is no doubt in my mind that improvements could have been made, and I guess we can all do a bit of revisionist history to better understand how the flow of 140,000 people and 300 747 of goods in 5 days could have been better planned… but my personal opinion is that the sinister side of this problem is a fraction of why things have not been distributed.