Mon, Jan 03, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan needs a tailored relief effort

By Frank Shih 石富元

The earthquake that occurred on Dec. 26 caused an ocean surge that resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives in Southeast Asia. Taiwan has played an active role in a number of relief efforts over the past few years, from the earthquakes in El Salvador, India, Indonesia, and Iran, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, a search through international media reveals little indication of Taiwan's contribution, with the exception of the occasional mention of institutions responsible for making large donations of money or resources.

In fact, Taiwan cannot officially join many international organizations. I suspect we are being excluded from participating in coordinated international humanitarian relief efforts is that we lack expertise and knowledge regarding international hygiene and humanitarian aid. As our past experience of such efforts is limited, we are not very familiar with how these international operations are conducted.

Nobody doubts the altruism and sense of mission that spurs on various Taiwanese groups, but the way they actually carry things out may only be of little practical help to the disaster victims, actually add to the chaos there, and waste already stretched local resources.

We are used to the way we deal with disasters in Taiwan, but if these same methods are used abroad, it can raise a few eyebrows. For example, news reports say again and again that if nothing is done about the bodies of the victims, there is the risk of an epidemic flaring up.

Every time there is a major natural disaster, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that there is no danger posed by the decomposing bodies above and beyond the nasty odor. Epidemics arise when there is inadequate clean water, water treatment and checks to prevent the spread of disease.

The media should stop broadcasting erroneous information, and instead instruct relief groups to concentrate on improving water and food supplies as well as the living conditions of the local people. With the continuous misinformation provided by Taiwan's media, few Taiwanese groups may be able to fit in with international relief efforts.

The actual disaster happens over a limited period of time. The media concentrates on the subsequent emergency response period, and this spurs many disaster relief groups to set out for the disaster area. There are groups from all countries, many ill-prepared and speaking different languages, using up resources to little effect. This causes a "secondary disaster," making it more difficult for disaster victims.

In terms of medical relief, there is already an established way of doing things within the international community. Anything that gets in the way of this could hamper the integrated implementation of relief. In general, local services deal with the emergency response immediately following the actual disaster, and they only need technological support from abroad.

It is in the subsequent restoration period that people require large amounts of material resources and manpower. This period could go on for several years, whereas the fervor for providing aid has a shelflife of weeks, leaving disaster victims on their own. International relief organizations stress that aid should not be excessive in the emergency response period, but not slacken during the restoration period. Taiwanese relief groups should adapt their approach accordingly.

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