Taiwan experiences around 18,500 earthquakes per year—from small tremors to massive quakes—as well as typhoons and landslides, so the country’s disaster relief and emergency operations must function as a system to respond to multiple crises. The real potential of serious disasters cause citizens’ concerns and in turn compel the government to develop better emergency management system and technology to reduce the consequences of natural disasters. The military is not the only responder; civil society also works closely with government efforts. While Taiwan’s military is the first to respond to a natural disaster, non-governmental organizations—such as Tzu Chi (慈濟), Taiwan Red Cross—also assist disaster victims by providing food, shelter, and reconstruction. Taiwan’s emergency response system can benefit from a holistic approach that better integrates military and civilian assets for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR).
In general terms, Taiwan’s disaster emergency response system is separated into three levels: the central government, special municipality county or city government, and township offices. At each level of government, there are Disaster Prevention and Rescue Committees, which are formed by different departments of the central government. Based on the severity of the disaster, the President and the Prime Minister can form a Central Emergency Operation Center to lead the rescue efforts with the cooperation of the local emergency operation centers formed by local governments. Immediately after natural disasters occur, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) dispatches special military rescue teams to the affected areas to support the first responders, local firefighters, police forces, and emergency medical teams.
Military as first responder
The military is the most critical responder when it comes to disaster relief in Taiwan. After an earthquake or typhoon, military assets and infrastructure are often the only ones that are still capable of operation, and the military is most capable in quickly assembling and deploying sufficient manpower to the disaster stricken regions. In the news, it is common to see soldiers, along with the special rescue teams from the fire departments, carrying trapped victims through muddy winding footpaths out to safety, and delivering essential resources to the people in need.
The military frequently mentions a phrase: “Disaster relief is regarded as combat (救災視同作戰).” That is, disaster relief missions should be considered similar to combat operations, since the dispatch and coordination of troops is similar during war. Natural disasters therefore present a good opportunity to test the training and logistical skills of the military. On February 6, 2018, when a magnitude 6.4 earthquake rattled Hualien, an eastern city of Taiwan, then Minister of National Defense Gen. Feng Shih-kuan (馮世寬) immediately dispatched three Lockheed C-130 military transport aircraft carrying soldiers to the area, and the central government maintained control of HA/DR operations.
Civil society organizations: Tzu Chi
After the military intervenes, however, civil organizations in Taiwan—especially disaster relief groups and non-profit organizations such as Tzu Chi, Taiwan Red Cross, International Headquarters S.A.R Taiwan—step-in providing rescue efforts, including material and emotional support to the victims. For example, a group of volunteers from various non-profit groups, nearby colleges, and churches worked together with the Department of Social Welfare at Tainan city government in the aftermath of Tainan earthquake in 2016, which claimed 115 lives. The volunteers formed a disaster relief alliance helping the officials to deliver essential resources to the stricken region, providing respite care service, consultation, and entertainment to the victims and their families.
While the Taiwan government is always the first responder and takes the lead in providing disaster relief and reconstruction, NGOs are also crucial to sustaining relief efforts by involving civil society. By collaborating with the government, NGOs can promote civic participation domestically, and foster unofficial relations with other countries, especially when the NGOs gain support internationally. For instance, Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, established by Dharma Master Cheng Yen in 1966, is a Taiwanese international humanitarian NGO that now has over 10 million members worldwide throughout 47 countries. Over time, its mission has spanned from charity, health, education, disaster relief, to environmental protection. From the group’s past experience in assisting disaster relief in Taiwan, Tzu Chi’s uniform—white cap, dark blue shirt, and white pants—has become one of the welcomed sights in many regions after disasters hit. Their humanitarian work reaches every corner of the world, from the wildfire in Santa Barbara, California, to Haiti after Hurricane Matthew.
Besides delivering essentials and providing shelter, Tzu Chi often cooperates with the government to provide long-term aid for people and areas impacted by disasters. After Typhoon Morakot in 2009, more than 600 people lost their lives or were reported missing, and nearly 25,000 people were evacuated from the mountainous region of Kaohsiung. Tzu Chi worked closely with the government to conduct relocation and reconstruction of villages. Tzu Chi built three sites of permanent housing for the villagers affected by the typhoon. The permanent housing provided everything, and they are even equipped with LCD televisions.
While Tzu Chi has played an invaluable role in providing relief after natural disasters, they are not without issues. For instance, the new “great love” villages (Da-Ai Villages) reconstructed by Tzu Chi after Typhoon Morakot did not include the traditional features and characteristics of the villages that were destroyed. Moreover, in the most affected village of Xiaolin, despite its inhabitants being mostly Christian, Tzu Chi decided to build various Buddhist features around the village. Tzu Chi has also been criticized for its perceived lack of respect for traditional aboriginal culture. For instance, residents who want to move into Tzu Chi-provided permanent housing must follow the “rules of living” of the Da-Ai Villages, which discourage the residents from drinking, smoking, and chewing betel nut. Some of these activities are part of traditional aboriginal culture.
Despite these criticisms, Tzu Chi Foundation is an important player in track two diplomacy for Taiwan on the international level. In 2010, Tzu Chi became an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC), and participated in the Session of the Commission for Social Development in 2014 and 2017, and attended the 55th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2011. Although being accredited with Special Consultative Status does not connote that the organization has affiliation with the United Nations and Tzu Chi does not list Taiwan as one of the countries they have activities in, it is still useful for Taiwan’s NGO to be represented in the United Nations.
Taiwan Red Cross
Taiwan Red Cross Organization is another important NGO with a rich history in disaster relief, and search and rescue both at home and abroad. However, a sharp decline in donations to Taiwan Red Cross Organization for the 2017 Jiuzhaigou earthquake in China indicated that perhaps people have lost interest in the organization. Until 2016, the organization received special treatment with the Act of Administrative Rules and Procedures of the Red Cross Society of the Republic of China promulgated by the KMT government in the early 1930s. The act gave Taiwan Red Cross Organization the right to call for emergency donations whereas other NGOs had to abide by Charity Donations Destined For Social Welfare Funds Implementation Regulations. The government eventually abolished the Act of Administrative Rules and Procedures of the Red Cross Society in 2016, which ended its special status in Taiwan.
When natural disasters hit, Taiwan’s military is best equipped and trained to be the first responder. However, Taiwan’s civil society associations, like Tzu Chi and Taiwan Red Cross, soon follow by mobilizing volunteers and donations to help those afflicted by a disaster. Disaster relief is a long-term commitment that ties together various sections of the government and NGOs. When a disaster strikes, disaster relief is about saving lives and reconstructing what has been damaged. It is a difficult job and there is always room for improvement, but Taiwan’s military and NGOs are proving that they are ready for the situation and their skills in disaster relief may provide useful lessons for other countries.
The main point: When a natural disaster occurs in Taiwan, the military is the first responder, but then Taiwan’s vibrant civil society associations soon step-in to mobilize volunteers and donations to help victims of the disaster.
 董娟鳴 (Chuan-Ming Tung) , 林文苑 (Wen-Yen Lin), 涂庭儀 (Ting-Yi Tu) , and 蔡皓年 (Hao-Nien Tsai), “Issues of Enforcing Post-Disaster Permanent Housing Policy from the Housing Development and Residents’ Living Patterns Point of View-A Case Study of XinKa i Tribe, Liouguei District, Kaohsiung City,” Journal of Architecture 92 (2015): 99-124.