On February 6, 2016, the southern Taiwanese city of Tainan was struck by a magnitude 6.4 earthquake. The catastrophe caused the collapse of several buildings, including a 17-storey apartment complex full of families gathered for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Among the 117 fatalities, 115 were killed inside the Weiguan Jinlong complex. More than one-third of them were teenagers and children (“Funeral service held”, 2016). A wave of deep emotion ran nationwide urging public authorities to react quickly. Pledging that the government would learn from the catastrophe, President Ma Ying-jeou announced that the Cabinet had drafted a new plan for anti-seismic reinforcement of construction and would push for further amendments to strengthen disaster prevention and relief measures (“Funeral service held”, 2016). While these initiatives are welcomed, the responsibility of their implementation and monitoring will rest on President-elect Tsai Ying-wen and the newly elected members of the Legislative Yuan. The island’s changing political landscape and the tragedy of the Tainan earthquake represent an opportunity to explore national disaster management in Taiwan.
The specific location and distinct geography of the island of Taiwan have given rise to its unique and beautiful scenery, but are also responsible for the frequent occurrence of natural disasters. Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the most seismically active region on the planet, Taiwan lies on the collision zone of the Eurasian and Philippine Sea plates, resulting in tens of thousands of earthquakes recorded on the island every year. Most of them are unnoticeable and cause minimal or no damage, particularly since more stringent building regulations were introduced following a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 1999 that killed more than 2,400 people and left 11,000 injured (“1999 Taiwan earthquake”, 2009).
The dramatic impacts of this earthquake (also known as the 921 or the Chi-Chi earthquake) exposed the fact that poor construction practices had prospered during the country’s economic boom in the 1990s. Taiwan had proper building codes to mitigate the effects of earthquakes on its building stock, but enforcement was not strict (Prater & Wu, 2002). The capacity for supplying housing and office space at lower prices had been perceived as a greater benefit and a politically popular accomplishment. The traumatic experience of the 921 earthquake was a wake-up call for Taiwan’s public authorities.
The first fundamental disaster management law, the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act, was promulgated in 2000 (Lin & Chen, 2010). It serves as the legal basis for the country’s national disaster management plans and especially integrates the management mechanisms for natural and technological disasters, covering all four phases of the disaster management cycle: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. It also explicitly defines the responsibilities of the central government, municipality, county, and township when a disaster occurs.
The adoption of the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act took place in a period of political transition. In 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became Taiwan’s new president, thus ending more than five decades of Kuomintang rule over the country. Though the DPP won the presidency, it did not control the Legislative Yuan. The tense relations between Chen Shui-bian and the Kuomintang parliamentary majority led to several months of debate and discussion before the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act was finally passed. Despite partisan considerations, several key policies and projects targeting the prevention and reduction of natural hazards were initiated in the wake of the 921 earthquake. The early 2000s, for example, saw the setting up of the National Disaster Prevention and Protection Commission with the functions of development and coordination of disaster relief and rescue operations. In 2003, the government formally declared the establishment of the National Science and Technology Center for Disaster Reduction (NCDR), designed to increase collaboration between various governmental agencies for planning, promoting, and organizing technological innovation and integration in disaster prevention.
That same year, the National Science Council created the National Applied Research Laboratories (NARL) that includes the National Center for Research on Earthquake Engineering (NCREE). NCREE is a prominent institution that brings together national academic resources and researchers to carry out joint projects to advance earthquake engineering technologies and reduce life and property losses in earthquakes. Over the years, it has proposed structural seismic defense technology for the construction of street buildings, highways, and railways bridges. It has also developed a methodology of earthquake scenario simulation and risk assessment with the Taiwan Earthquake Loss Estimation System (TELES) and an earthquake early warning system (EEWS) to reliably predict the occurrence of earthquakes with enough time to enable people to take precautions.
After the collapse of the Weiguan Jinlong complex, reports over cracks in the walls of the building and pictures showing tin cans and foam used as filler inside the concrete have drawn intense public and media criticism.
In terms of financial protection, the economic losses of the 921 earthquake, estimated at $14 billion or 3.3 percent of GDP (Prater & Wu, 2002), prompted the government to amend the Insurance Law and establish a mechanism for assuming earthquake risk. Resulting from an active cooperation between the public and private sectors, the Taiwan Residential Earthquake Insurance Fund (TREIF) was launched in 2002. Since then, insurance penetration increased from less than 6 percent of households with earthquake insurance to 31.5 percent (Lai & Hsieh, 2007; “Annual report 2014”, 2015).
National disaster management in Taiwan is often cited as a model for other disaster-prone countries in Asia. The island has built, over the years, a solid reputation and earned international recognition for its expertise in the anticipation and response to earthquakes. However, a closer look at the situation reveals certain shortcomings. After the collapse of the Weiguan Jinlong complex, reports over cracks in the walls of the building and pictures showing tin cans and foam used as filler inside the concrete have drawn intense public and media criticism. Prosecutors said that there were too few steel reinforcing bars in parts of the building and indicated that the contractor may have used a borrowed license for the construction of the property (“Calls for safety”, 2016). The Tainan earthquake exposed the fierce competition and the race for cost-cutting shortcuts that have long dogged the country’s construction industry.
According to Chern Jenn-chuan, civil engineering professor at National Taiwan University, a number of contractors try any and all means to avoid burdensome or restrictive building codes, with no regard for the eventual consequences (“Government has failed”, 2016). At the opening of a recent Taipei forum on earthquake resistance capacity on March 6, he directly accused the government of shirking its responsibilities by allowing poorly constructed buildings to continue to exist in Taiwan. There is no sufficient control from either governmental agencies or local governments on the quality of construction work. Architects and technicians in charge of supervising the compliance of the projects with statutory building regulations are often hired by construction companies, leading to endless cases of bribery. The lack of commitment and oversight by public authorities undermines the legal and scientific efforts undertaken to reduce the impacts of earthquakes.
Pressed by social discontent, the DPP transition task force has promised to address the problem once in office. Taking on venal contractors and corrupt officials only constitutes the first part of the solution. The incoming administration will also have to pay serious attention to the aging residential building stock, as 57.5 percent of housing units were built before 1990 (“2010 population and”, 2010). There is an urgent need for global urban renewal projects across the country, but this will require significant financial investment. The current moribund situation of the Taiwanese economy makes any future upgrading of the housing market a challenge. Taiwan’s GDP grew by just 0.75 percent in 2015, and the prospects for 2016 have already been slashed from 2.32 percent to 1.4 percent due to subdued international demand for exports (Jackson, 2016). Amid public budget deficit and stagnant wages, there is little room for optimism.
A tragic incident like the collapse of the Weiguan Jinlong complex provides a transitory opportunity during which political consensus can be reached and additional resources can be released. Decisions on increasing scrutiny over construction work and renovation over building stock will only enjoy prominence on the governmental agenda for a short period of time. The 921 earthquake had important repercussions that transformed the practice of national disaster management in Taiwan. Hopefully, the Tainan earthquake will remind public authorities to remain vigilant and mobilized for the threat of forthcoming earthquakes. Failure to act means that the scenes of destruction observed in Tainan during the Lunar New Year celebrations will undoubtedly repeat themselves.
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