Relief volunteers more useful outside quake zone

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Swarms of volunteers that have arrived in Lushan County, the epicenter of Saturday's massive earthquake in southwest China's Sichuan Province, may be doing more harm than good.

While their enthusiasm and quick mobilization shows that progress has been made in increasing public participation in disaster relief efforts in China, their energy and willingness to lend a hand would be more useful outside of the disaster area itself.

Many volunteers have come from nearby universities, bringing enthusiasm but lacking rescue experience or training.

Meanwhile, the empty-handed volunteers have to share food, water and tents with local villagers who lost everything in the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that shook Ya'an City, Sichuan Province, on Saturday morning and has claimed 193 lives so far.

On the road to Longmen, a township in which most of the houses were destroyed, lots of private cars arrived with donations and relief supplies in the first two days after the quake, creating heavy road congestion that impeded rescue efforts in the 72-hour "golden time" for saving lives.

A rolling rock took the life of a 32-year-old female volunteer who was in a truck to deliver medicine to Lushan County on Monday afternoon.

The news of her death prompted reflection on the pros and cons of volunteers entering a disaster area.

Of course, the sensible participation of volunteers could be boon to rescue efforts and impending reconstruction work. But the irrational participation of volunteers could have the opposite effect.

What the quake-hit areas need most now is not large numbers of helpers, but orderly dispatches of experienced personnel and materials.

A basic requirement for volunteers is that they should not be burdens in quake-hit regions, where supplies of daily necessities are running dangerously low.

The public needs to understand that people don't necessarily have to arrive at the scene to be useful. They can still help by donating money and materials, circulating messages to help locate missing persons or even praying for the victims.

Rescue work should be carried out in a professional way. Organized and experienced civil rescue groups -- not empty-handed, inexperienced individuals -- are welcome in Lushan.

To reduce strains on the county's supplies of daily necessities like food and water, Wang Hao, director of the Langzhong municipal volunteers association and the volunteer coordinator in Longmen Township, has persuaded more than 1,000 young, empty-handed or inexperienced volunteers to return home every day since the quake.

Wang has divided the remaining 50 to 100 experienced volunteers into nine teams to offer psychological counseling, provide medical care and carry out household surveys to find out what is needed.

The State Council, China's cabinet, quickly responded to the flood of volunteers on Sunday by announcing a ban on private volunteers and civilian social groups entering the disaster area without permission from the government.

Ideal rescue operations demand that personnel and materials make it to the places where they are most needed in the shortest possible amount of time, which requires coordination between the government and society.

That volunteers are pouring into the disaster area is not the fault of those individuals, companies or NGOs, who are trying to show their love and care.

Now is the time for the government to establish a disaster evaluation network in which information about casualties, losses and material demands can be shared among relevant government departments and civilian groups.

An effective deployment of rescuers and volunteers based on the network would improve the efficiency of disaster relief work, and probably save more lives.

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