A resident of Daweizi village, Xiuyan county, Northeast China's Liaoning Province cleans her house after the flood on August 5, 2012. Photo: Xinhua
Underreporting disaster death tolls could compromise relief efforts, since higher authorities may not be aware of the seriousness of the situation, an expert told the Global Times on Monday after reports that the local government of Xiuyan Manchu Autonomous County, under Anshan, Northeast China's Liaoning Province, underreported deaths from flooding in August 2012.
According to a statement posted on the Anshan government's official website on December 14, it set up a special investigation team which had been sent to villages in Xiuyan to examine the death toll of the "August 4 Flood" on December 12, after Beijing-based news agencies reported discrepancies in the death toll.
The city government vows to seriously handle the underreporting issue and officials responsible for fake reports will be held legally accountable, read the notice.
A casualty list of 38 names from the 2012 disaster was sent to China National Radio (CNR), claiming that the local county government concealed the actual death toll. The list contained the victims' personal information including their ages and detailed addresses, the Beijing Times reported on December 12.
The list was provided by a retired employee with the local government, who spent years collecting and verifying the information, the Beijing Times reported on Sunday.
According to the notice the government released two days after the flood, only five people were confirmed to have died and another three were listed as missing at that time, said an article posted on the CNR public WeChat account.
Don't tell the outside
The CNR reporters conducted field visits to Xiuyan, saying that "the names, ages and home addresses were found to be true." The list is "highly credible," the CNR article said.
"There were only 8 deaths according to the local government's official report, too few to be true," a Xiuyan resident told CNR, "we all knew many more than that."
"Three of my family died from the flood - my wife, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter," Zhang Xiquan, a villager who lives in Hadabei, was quoted as saying by CNR.
"The township officials told me not to report the deaths… [I was given] 20,000 yuan ($2,870) for each death," Zhang noted.
Tang Wensheng, another villager in Hadabei who lost two brothers and his wife in the disaster, revealed that he was also told by the local officials including the village chief not to tell the "outside" about the deaths.
"The official paid someone 1,000 yuan to carry the bodies to a local mountain for cremation with gasoline," Tang Xinghe, a villager in Shihuiyao township, who lost his toddler grandson, told CNR.
"The cremation was not allowed in the crematorium," he said.
According to a later notice issued by the provincial flood control and drought relief office on August 12, 2012, cited in the CNR article, the heavy downpours on August 4 affected 25.94 million people in the region, with 10 being found dead and 4 being unaccounted for, up to the release date.
"There were no advance flooding alerts. When I woke up at midnight, my cellphone had no reception," Liu Qiang, a resident of Hongqi village, Xiuyan told the Global Times on Monday, recalling the 2012 disaster.
Although there were no deaths in his village, some houses in low-lying areas were badly damaged, Liu said, noting that "the then village chief and other officials were playing mahjong. They did not know about the disaster until one of the victims told them that water was pouring into his house."
Peng Zongchao, deputy president of the School of Public Policy and Management under Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Monday that it was possibly due to an instinct for self-protection that the local officials chose to conceal the true death toll.
"Yet, it is still too early to conclude that every death in the disaster was caused by human factors," Peng said, calling for a thorough investigation of the matter.
According to the Regulation on the Relief of Natural Disasters, when the death toll is over 30, the National Disaster Reduction Committee should get involved and help with the situation.