Scoop has an Ethical Paywall
Work smarter with a Pro licence Learn More

Gordon Campbell | Parliament TV | Parliament Today | News Video | Crime | Employers | Housing | Immigration | Legal | Local Govt. | Maori | Welfare | Unions | Youth | Search


Dunne's Weekly: Taiwan Earthquake A Wake-Up Call For New Zealand

Taiwan and New Zealand are two small island states with much in common.

Both are vibrant, independent democracies, living in the shadow of an overbearing neighbour. (Admittedly, Taiwan’s overbearing neighbour has far more aggressive tendencies than our at-times overbearing neighbour!) There is a strong free trade agreement between the two countries and a growing cultural link based on DNA evidence that Taiwan’s indigenous people and Māori share a common ancestry.

And both Zealand and Taiwan lie on the Pacific Ring of Fire – the horseshoe shaped zone around the Pacific Ocean which the United States Geological Service has described as “the most seismically and volcanically active zone in the world.” This week’s devastating 7.4 magnitude earthquake, with many powerful aftershocks already, is the latest and largest in a long line of major earthquakes in Taiwan over the last 25 years. As we know all too well, earthquakes are also a common feature of life in New Zealand, with major earthquakes here in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, Seddon in 2013, and Kaikoura in 2016.

But sadly, here is where the comparison with Taiwan stops. Whereas New Zealand authorities have talked long and hard about earthquake preparedness, particularly since Christchurch, Taiwan has made the structural changes necessary to ensure it is well prepared to face earthquakes in the future. That explains why the death toll from this week’s earthquake is likely to remain low overall, even as more deaths become known. Given Taiwan’s population density – 23 million people living on an island the size of the province of Otago – that is a remarkable achievement.

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

Indeed, the biggest criticism so far of Taiwan’s high level of preparedness was that the national text messaging system which warns of arriving earthquakes failed to accurately measure the intensity of this week’s quake. A similar system, developed by GNS New Zealand is at a much more embryonic stage, and not as sophisticated as the Taiwan model.

Taiwan’s preparedness is considered amongst the most advanced in the world. It is central government led, through the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act, which established two national centres to oversee earthquake response co-ordination and training. It includes strict, regularly updated, building codes for new and existing buildings, with subsidies available to people to check building resilience. Penalties for non-compliance are also strict, with culpable building owners and construction personnel liable to imprisonment. A world class seismological network has been established and there are regular public education campaigns and drills in schools.

By comparison, the New Zealand response looks well-meaning, but essentially vague and languid. Our National Emergency Management system is still feeble at best, as the recent independent Bush report into the response to Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact on Hawkes Bay has shown. More than a decade after the collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch with the loss of 115 lives, and despite the critical findings of the Commission of Inquiry, no-one has yet been taken to Court over the building’s failure because the Crown Law Office has overruled efforts by the Police, various lawyers, and experts to do so. Councils around the country continue to find it difficult to require building owners to comply with stricter earthquake standards, and there is no support available to help bring buildings up to standard, or to help people find out if the buildings they live or work in are sufficiently resilient.

GNS has a good system for recording earthquakes and their intensity, but much more work needs to be done on establishing effective early warning systems. Public education programmes are occasional and patchy, although there do appear to be regular exercises and drills in schools. Transport corridors remain vulnerable, as last years’ upper North Island cyclones highlighted in various areas.

Within hours of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, Taiwan was able to assemble and dispatch its specialist ready response unit to assist in the recovery. There is no equivalent body in New Zealand, with our emergency response in such situations left in the hands of our remarkable, but still under resourced, volunteer firefighters who have become our predominant frontline response service in so many areas, from road accidents to medical emergencies, to natural disasters.

Taiwan and New Zealand both know that earthquakes are a part of life in our respective countries. They strike swiftly and catastrophically. They cannot be prevented, but their impacts can be mitigated. Taiwan’s history means it understands how important comprehensive community resilience and recovery is, and that only it can establish that for itself. As in so many other areas of its national life, Taiwan has faced up to the responsibility of doing so and has just got on with it.

In contrast, New Zealand still has too much of the “must get around to that someday” approach. Yet, for both New Zealand and Taiwan, one unfortunate certainty is that both will suffer more large and damaging earthquakes in the future. Another is that Taiwan will continue to be the better prepared.

© Scoop Media

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading
Parliament Headlines | Politics Headlines | Regional Headlines




InfoPages News Channels


Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.