Wednesday, Jul 26, 2017, 8:35 PM CST – China


Overseas Rescue

Stronger Together

China’s overseas rescue work in Nepal has highlighted the need for better coordination between the country's upstart relief teams

The devastated facade of Fasidega Temple in Kathmandu after the quake, April 28, 2015 Photo by Zhang Hao

A monk carries a sacred statue to safety, Kathmandu, April 30, 2015 Photo by Niranjan Shrestha

China International Search and Rescue Team members discuss their rescue work, Kathmandu

Villagers in Pokhara, the epicenter of the quake, wait for helicopter evacuation, April 29 Photo by wally santana

China’s private Blue Sky Rescue Team members on assignment, Kathmandu, April 30 Photo by IC

Early on the morning of May 1, 2015, two young Nepalese men came to Wu Hao’s office in Thamel, Kathmandu. They had ridden a motorcycle from the northern part of the capital, 30 kilometers away, to seek help.

Nearly a week had passed since a devastating 8.1-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal on April 25, but the men’s village of 1,500 people had received no assistance, other than a call from the police to ask the number of casualties.

Pokhara, a tourist city 200 kilometers west of Kathmandu, was the epicenter of the quake. While at least 28 countries and international rescue organizations dispatched teams to Nepal as soon as the news broke, it was five days before the first batch of aid arrived in the most severely hit areas.

On May 2, the UN disclosed that the quake had claimed over 7,000 lives, that 160,000 buildings had collapsed and 140,000 were seriously damaged, and that over three million people were left in need of food.

Born in 1982 and a Kathmandu resident for two years, Wu is a founder of C-Center, an international language school in the Nepalese capital. His office, staffed by six Chinese and two Nepalese, decided to join the rescue effort in two teams – one headed to survey the damage to cultural relics in Nepal, and another, led by Wu, aiming to assess casualties in the worst-hit regions – before contacting rescue teams from China.

On May 2, Wu rented an SUV and drove to the village where the two Nepalese men lived. Wu gave the village leader and some local young men a registration form, and taught them how to collect disaster information, as well as some basic emergency survival skills.

After the quake, more than 20 rescue teams from China set out for Nepal, joining a number of Nepal-based Chinese enterprises who had already begun rescue work. In addition to the official China International Search and Rescue Team (CISAR), the remainder were all private organizations. The information provided by Wu served as a briefing for these teams upon their arrival in the area.


Despite its modest, 20-strong passenger manifest, on April 29, Air China flight CA437 from Chengdu, Sichuan to Kathmandu was delayed due to the need for a larger aircraft – the airline had not anticipated so much cargo.

“The aid packages overloaded the [smaller] plane,” a crew member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told NewsChina. Besides reporters and Nepalese people returning from China to Nepal, all of the plane’s passengers were rescue workers, including a nine-member group of experts headed by Cui Peng, an academician from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an expert in “secondary disasters” like landslides. Cui had participated in the rescue effort following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province.

Du Ruihai, general manager of the overseas branch of China Railway Shisiju Group Corporation (CRSGC), was initially prevented from boarding the plane because his relief cargo was too heavy, but was given the green light after the airline learned that he was intending to join the rescue effort in Nepal.

The second day after the quake, Dong Guangxian, a CRSGC project manager in Nepal working to build an Armed Police Forces Academy, received a call from the head of the Nepalese armed police forces, seeking heavy equipment for use in the rescue effort. The company instantly dispatched an excavator, a truck loader and local staff.

“I was soaked with sweat even before work began,” said 30-year-old Liu Mingkui, the excavator driver, recalling the experience of working to find bodies. Within a week, Liu and his colleagues had excavated a dozen bodies.

Like Du Ruihai, Yu Shaoning, PR manager for Chinese telecom giant Huawei in Nepal, arrived in Kathmandu shortly after the quake from Thailand where he had been on a business trip. As the main equipment provider for Ncell and NTD, two major mobile operators in Nepal, Yu said the main task for Huawei was to ensure the stability of core communication networks.

“If a base station breaks down, it will affect a specific area, but if the core networks break down, all telecommunications in Nepal are likely to be paralyzed,” Yu told NewsChina.

While a number of base stations broke down in the worst-hit region, Nepal’s communication networks were not interrupted for an extended period of time. Five days after the quake, several Ncell and NTD telecommunications offices in the capital resumed business.


On May 1, the day China’s private Blue Sky Rescue Team (BSRT) arrived in Nepal, the team dug out a total of 24 bodies. While inspecting a collapsed building, the team discovered the body of a victim whose legs were trapped beneath rubble. When Nepalese military staff advised rescuers to cut the legs, the rescue team refused. “Our rescue team members placed a mattress over the body and spent six hours digging the victim out,” Yuan Shan, head of BSRT told NewsChina. “It takes both professional skills and respect for life when searching for survivors and bodies.”

China’s official CISAR team in one case spent 34 consecutive hours working to save a single survivor. “It is impossible for a rescue team to work independently without rescue dogs. Life detection instruments alone are insufficient. It is difficult to find survivors buried deep in the rubble without using both,” Qu Guosheng, deputy director of CISAR, told NewsChina in Kathmandu. Qu, also chief engineer of China’s National Earthquake Response Support Service, pointed out that CISAR arrived in Nepal the second day after the quake, one of the first rescue teams to arrive.

“CISAR has obvious advantages in organizing rescue work [compared with private ones]. We coordinated our work deep into the night and took off for Nepal early the next morning,” Mi Hongliang, spokesman for the China Earthquake Administration, told NewsChina.

Mi said that an important yardstick to gauge whether an international rescue team is qualified or not is its capacity for self-sufficiency and independent work. Currently, China’s private rescue teams fail to meet this requirement, according to Mi. While the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 sparked explosive growth in China’s private rescue teams, even BSRT, the leading private team, lacks its own tents.

“There is still much room for China’s private rescue teams to improve. Leading international rescue teams have their own bags, outfits and equipment,” Yuan Shan said. “The most important indicator of a good rescue team, however, is its determination, which is not directly linked to money, equipment and aid packages.”


Wu Hao and his team agreed upon a guiding principle: never to take on any task in excess of their capacities. They set up a public account on popular Chinese social networking platform WeChat, explaining clearly that C-Center is dedicated to collecting disaster and relief information, and would not be accepting donations from the public.

“We do not have the capacity to arrange donations and relief goods,” Wu told NewsChina. Wu’s organization lacked funding, and struggled even to rent a vehicle for their disaster surveys.
However, some saw Wu’s team as surplus to requirements – immediately following the quake, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Kathmandu began a coordinated effort with the Nepalese government to conduct a survey of over 90 percent of quake-hit regions in the country.

In the UN office in Kathmandu, representatives from international rescue teams held coordination meetings nearly every hour on topics including shelter, medical care, food and child protection. The disaster information was updated on a daily basis.

While BSRT partnered with OCHA, the team also expressed gratitude for the disaster information collected by Wu Hao, which BSRT said it used for specific relief efforts. But for other Chinese private rescue teams, many of them making their first trip outside of China, coordinating with local Chinese organizations was something of a headache.

“It was mainly due to lack of experience. Some Chinese private rescue teams do not know where to start, or with whom to communicate,” Yuan Shan told NewsChina.

“After the rescue work in Nepal is finished, we will try to establish a Nepalese BSRT. BSRT in Myanmar is also under construction,” Yuan said. Even considering the challenges, Yuan remains optimistic about China’s private rescue teams, and hopes that BSRT’s service can cover all developing countries in five years.

“BSRT is set to go international and China needs a new private humanitarian aid brand,” Yuan said. According to a report on overseas Chinese professionals published in 2014 by the Center for China and Globalization, a non-governmental think tank in China, the number of ethnically Chinese people living overseas is around 50 million, a population whose local knowledge could be a “big advantage” to BSRT’s expansion, Yuan added.

In Nepal, in addition to assistance from Wu Hao, many local Chinese people pitched in with BSRT’s efforts, particularly in terms of food and shelter.

Qu Shengguo told our reporter that when working overseas, the primary task for Chinese private rescue teams was to identify the worst affected areas they can reach, and carry out rapid rescue efforts. Besides, Qu added that logistical support, including information sharing, transport and translation support, should be strengthened.

“China’s private rescue teams need planning – unity and specialization is the way forward. The Chinese government needs to establish certification and assessment criteria to advise on which specific rescue teams are needed for a specific disaster,” Yuan told NewsChina. “The criteria are expected to be unveiled by 2020.”


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