A Preliminary Assessment of Taiwan’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Capabilities

A Preliminary Assessment of Taiwan’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Capabilities

A Preliminary Assessment of Taiwan’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Capabilities

Leo Bosner is a 2017 GTI Scholarship recipient and previously served as an Emergency Management Specialist for 29 years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Over the past few months, Taiwan has been rocked by a string of powerful earthquakes: a 5.1 magnitude earthquake near Tainan on March 20, a 4.8 magnitude and a 4.3 magnitude earthquake in Nantou on March 29 and April 2 respectively, and a 4.7 earthquake in Taitung on April 16. A more massive earthquake on February 6 in Hualien killed 17 people and resulted in many collapsed buildings. As part of the Pacific “ring of fire,” Taiwan is subject to the risk of various natural disasters such as floods, typhoons, and earthquakes, as well as health disasters such as pandemics, and human-caused disasters such as airplane crashes and industrial accidents. By and large, the Taiwan government can draw upon a significant level of resources to manage such large disasters, though it may need to address the issue of limited resources in some areas. Yet, like all other advanced societies, it would benefit from improving its planning and effective use of its resources.

From a humanitarian point of view, it is imperative that the government of Taiwan be prepared to utilize its available resources as effectively as possible to protect life, health, and property following such a major event. Moreover, public confidence in government may be strengthened or weakened by the government’s perceived ability, or inability, to respond effectively to a disaster, for example, such notable failures as occurred following Hurricane Katrina in the United States or the Sewol Ferry Disaster in South Korea. Therefore, it behooves the government, as well as non-government sectors and private citizens, to be well-prepared.

Using central principles in emergency management to evaluate Taiwan’s system

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) guidelines are a useful basis for evaluating Taiwan’s emergency management system—clarifying roles, vision, and mission. It simply defines the role of emergency management as the managerial aspect of creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters. It is not simply to cultivate effective disaster relief efforts, but to manage the overall disaster relief system. The FEMA vision is to promote safer communities with the capacity to cope with hazards and disasters. The mission is to protect communities by coordinating and integrating all activities necessary to build, sustain, and improve the capability to mitigate against, prepare for, respond to, and recover from threatened or actual natural disasters, acts of terrorism, or other man-made disasters. Based on these criterias, Taiwan’s emergency responders are keeping these guidelines in mind.

According to FEMA, the principles of emergency management are that it must be comprehensive, progressive, risk-driven, integrated, collaborative, coordinated, flexible, and professional. It must be comprehensive in considering and taking into account all hazards, all phases, all stakeholders, and all impacts relevant to disasters. It must also be progressive, whereas emergency managers anticipate future disasters, and take preventive and preparatory measures to build disaster-resistant and disaster-resilient communities. It is also risk-driven, where emergency managers use sound risk management principles such as hazard identification, risk analysis, and impact analysis in assigning priorities and resources. It is integrated to ensure unity of effort among all levels of government and all elements of a community. It is collaborative to create and sustain broad and sincere relationships among individuals and organizations to encourage trust, advocate a team atmosphere, build consensus, and facilitate communication. Emergency management is also coordinated, so emergency managers synchronize the activities of all relevant stakeholders to achieve a common purpose. It is flexible to use creative and innovative approaches in solving disaster challenges. Finally, it is professional, where emergency managers value a science and knowledge-based approach based on education, training, experience, ethical practice, public stewardship, and continuous improvement. All of these are the key principles laid out in FEMA’s Principles of Emergency Management Supplement. Based on these criteria, Taiwan is striving to uphold these key principles.

Emergency management is said to have four key phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Mitigation includes activities designed to prevent or reduce losses from disaster. It is considered the initial phase of emergency management. Preparedness is the development of plans and capabilities for effective disaster response. Response is the immediate reaction to a disaster, which may occur as the disaster is anticipated, as well as soon after it begins. Recovery includes activities that continue beyond the emergency period to restore critical community functions and manage reconstruction.” [1]

All four of these phases are critically important to emergency management. According to FEMA, “detailed planning and execution is required for each phase. Further, phases often overlap as there is often no clearly defined boundary where one phase ends and another begins. Successful emergency management coordinates activities in all four phases.” For example, regarding mitigation, in Taiwan questions have often been raised as to whether buildings are constructed strongly enough to resist earthquakes.  

Historical overview of Taiwan’s situation

Keeping the above principles in mind, Taiwan’s emergency management capabilities have evolved and improved over time. According to Chen, Wu, and Lai in “The Evolution of the Natural Disaster Management System in Taiwan,” natural disasters have killed more than 9,000 people in Taiwan since the end of World War II. The authors break this era down into four time periods:

  • 1945 – 1965: During this time there was essentially no official ordinance for disaster management.The police and the military were the primary emergency responders.
  • 1965 – 1994: After the Paiho Earthquake (1964), Taiwanese authorities began to develop a more systematic way of responding to disasters. The Standard Procedure for Natural Disaster Assistance (SPNDA) was established, focusing mainly on search and rescue, social assistance, and flood preparedness.
  • 1994 – 2000: In 1994, following the Northridge (California) Earthquake and the China Airlines crash, the Taiwan Government established the National Hazard Mitigation Program (NHMP), which emphasized disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, and required formalized plans for these activities.
  • 2000 – 2010: The catastrophic Ji-Ji [Chi-Chi] Earthquake of September 21, 1999, caused more than 2,000 deaths and 11,000 injuries. In the wake of this tragedy, in 2000 the Taiwan Government passed the Disaster Prevention and Response Act (DPRA), which addressed all four phases of emergency management: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

The Taiwan government further strengthened its emergency management systems after 2009. In August 2009, Typhoon Morakot, the “deadliest typhoon in the recorded history of Taiwan,” struck Taiwan. Over 270 centimeters (more than 100 inches) of rain fell, causing massive landslides, hundreds of deaths, and billions of dollars in damages. In assessing the Taiwan government response in their 2011 paper “Emergency Management in Taiwan: Learning from experiences,” Tso and McEntire write that the Morakot disaster “stirred the public to seek a high-performance and more professionalized emergency management system,” and that the government again worked to strengthen its approach to disasters. These efforts led to the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act, passed in 2010 and most recently amended in 2016. The historical record shows how Taiwan’s emergency response system improved with each natural disaster.

In depth analysis of 2016 Southern Taiwan Earthquake

The massive earthquake that struck Taiwan in 2016 is a useful case-study to better illustrate Taiwan’s effective emergency management capabilities. At 3:57 a.m. on February 6, 2016, a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Taiwan, killing more than 500 people. In reviewing the medical response to the incident, Lin et al. found indications of a robust and well-managed medical response: first, medical direction was implemented. Seven local disaster medical assistance teams (DMATs) were deployed during the 8-day field operation, with the first DMAT arriving only about 3 hours after the earthquake. Medical direction meetings were held in the field twice a day to proactively formulate team-oriented protocols for on-site emergency medical technicians, medical personnel, and administrative associates.

Second,  Taiwan officials emphasized occupational safety. Taiwan learned lessons ffrom othercountries, like the United States, particularly regarding the “powder effect” in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 that caused airway discomfort and long-term complications in fieldworkers. Thus, Taiwan officials implemented mandatory airway protection using at least N95 respirator masks for all workers responding to the earthquake. A follow-up program was also initiated to promote awareness of occupational safety.

Third, Taiwan officials launched psychological support programs to include psychotherapists and psychiatrists doing on-site group debriefing courses and mini-lectures for workers to improve awareness of mental health. Physical therapists also provided relaxation programs in the field to ease muscle tension and, thus, mental stress. Psychiatrists also developed a 1-year program to monitor post-traumatic stress disorder in emergency medical technicians, medical personnel, and hospitalized patients. Social workers also provided psychiatric support services for the victims and their families.

Similarly, news media reports corroborate a rapid and effective overall response involving numerous organizations. The BBC reported that the rescue effort in Tainan, Taiwan, was well underway following the earthquake, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou was able to tour touring the city of 2 million to assess the damage. The British news outlet also mentioned that shelters were fastly set up for those who lost homes in the earthquake. By the evening on the same day of the earthquake, running water was already available for almost half of the affected homes, and electricity was restored to most of the homes that had lost power. “The local forces seem prepared to deal with the earthquake and seem unlikely to call for further international help”, BBC‘s John Sudworth reported.

During this disaster, local aid organizations mobilized quickly, even though the earthquake took place during the country’s biggest holiday when many Taiwanese travel to see family members. Focus Taiwan reported that about 1,000 volunteers from the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation, one of Taiwan’s leading charities, were working on the ground on a Saturday to provide hot meals and warm clothes in Tainan.  Local businesses were also providing donations, including several hotels offering free rooms to earthquake survivors. The Taiwan Red Cross deployed a team of 50 volunteers to the disaster area with hammers, electric drills, and other rescue equipment.

Taiwan’s emergency response system has continued to evolve significantly in the past few decades. The news reports filed immediately after the 2016 Southern Taiwan earthquake, along with medical reports written several months later, indicate a significant strengthening of Taiwan’s disaster response since the days of the Chi-Chi earthquake in 1999 and Typhoon Morakot in 2009. Taiwan is fortunate to have the political will of its leaders to strengthen and maintain its emergency response, but it should continue the endless task of always improving upon its emergency management system.

The main point: The Taiwan government by and large has significant levels of resources to manage such large disasters, though it may need to address the issue of shortages in some areas. Like all other advanced societies, it would benefit from ceaselessly improving upon its planning and effective use of its resources.

[1] William L. Waugh, Jr., Living with Hazards, Dealing with Disasters: An Introduction to Emergency Management (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000).