Wednesday, May 22, 2024
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HomePoliticalDunne's Weekly: Taiwan Earthquake A Wake-Up Call For New Zealand

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.

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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

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