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In Wake of Disastrous Rainstorm, Beijing Says Text Message Warning System Impossible

This Saturday, Beijing experienced the heaviest rains the city has seen in more than sixty years. The results were devastating: 37 deaths and $1.5 billion in flooding damage. What’s more, there’s the possibility that both of those numbers will rise when the devastation in rural Fangshan district, the hardest-hit area, is more thoroughly assessed.

In the wake of the flooding, there has been a lot of anger and more than a few questions about why the city wasn’t better prepared. Some have asked, for example, whether lives might have been saved if Beijing’s Meteorological Bureau had sent text message warnings out to Beijing’s denizens, warning them to stay indoors and avoid danger areas during the impending rainstorm.

Personally, I could have used just such a warning. I very nearly went out on Saturday evening, and although I was obviously aware it was raining quite heavily, I was not aware of the extent of the danger until the next day. Thankfully I saved myself some trouble by deciding to stay in anyway, but many Beijingers weren’t so lucky, and a few of them paid for it with their lives.

So why didn’t the Meteorological Bureau send out text warnings to Beijingers beforehand? It seems like texts would be a remarkably effective method of issuing a warning given that more than 95 percent of Beijingers own mobile phones and people are more likely to check text messages than they are to turn on the radio, watch TV, or look up weather on the web during any given day. But Bureau director Qu Xiaobo told the Beijing Morning Post that warning Beijingers by text was technologically impossible. While the Bureau does have a client for sending text-messaged weather alerts, it apparently sends just 400 text messages per minute, meaning that it’s essentially useless for warning Beijing’s population of more than 20 million. (At that rate, it would take more than a month of around-the-clock texting before all of Beijing’s denizens were notified). Qu did say that the Bureau will have a warning system with total text coverage in place within the next two or three years, though.

So the Meteorological Bureau didn’t warn Beijingers by text because their system can only send 400 text messages per minute. How could it possibly be that slow? Who was this system designed by? Anyone in China with an operational phone is well aware that the big telecom companies (China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom) are capable of sending ads or notifications to all of their subscribers in a given locality within a fairly short period of time. Given that the Meteorological Bureau had its first warning about the storm at 9:30 A.M. on Saturday, it seems like those companies could easily have gotten a warning out to all their Beijing subscribers before the rain started in earnest that evening.

UPDATE: China Telecom has officially stated that there would be no technological problems with sending a weather warning text to all the Telecom subscribers in Beijing. However, company officials said, Telecom did not issue such a warning because they are not allowed to without being directed by the relevant government department.

So why didn’t the Meterological Bureau tell telecom companies to issue the warning themselves? I have no idea, but it certainly seems like a grievous oversight. A text-messaged warning might really have helped save lives, and there’s just no way the three telecoms combined aren’t capable of delivering 20 million texts in one day.

Waiting “two to three years” for a proper text message warning system isn’t nearly good enough. This technology is not new, and it’s kind of ridiculous that Beijing doesn’t have a proper text messaging system worked out. If implementing special clients for government bureaus to use on their own is too difficult or not feasible, then the government should be granted the rights to issue warnings via telecom operators’ networks in times of emergency. It’s not like that could be any more intrusive than those companies own ads and announcements already are, and unlike most of the texts I get from China Unicom, a message about a dangerous storm would actually be useful information.

Note: This post was updated at 15:51 to reflect a recent announcement by China Telecom officials, see the section marked “Update” for details.


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