Wed, Aug 29, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Government disaster preparation insufficient

By Yang Yung-nane 楊永年

As Typhoon Sepat lashed Taiwan, the government put the nation on full alert. But to really prevent heavy damage, disaster prevention and relief must be improved. This is the responsibility of the central and local governments, the fire administration and other departments. The government must take the biggest responsibility as it holds the most extensive resources.

Many indicators show a lack of crisis awareness causing the government's disaster relief and prevention mechanisms to not function very well. This can be seen in the government's handling of earlier crises. For example, after the 921 Earthquake in 1999, the central disaster response authorities failed to take immediate action. Disaster relief officials at the local level waited for superiors to examine the situation, without knowing -- or even thinking about -- how to deal with the crisis.

Since the earthquake, the National Fire Agency under the Ministry of the Interior and local fire departments have greatly improved their facilities and disaster prevention abilities.

However, judging from the government's mobilization plans, there has been only limited development in their disaster prevention and relief capability.

The problems stem from a political system in which administrative neutrality is often violated and there is inappropriate political interference in administrative and personnel affairs. Not only that, but the administrative organization is incomplete.

Theoretically, the relief system should react immediately and with high sensitivity, willingness and capability in the face of disaster.

My observations show, however, that except for fire fighters, government officials from the top all the way down are rarely willing to, capable of or induced to carry out disaster prevention and relief work. Local government preparation in particular is lacking.

The most crucial cause of this phenomenon lies in the lack of coordination.

Even if central and local governments establish disaster response centers when a major disaster is approaching, those staffing these centers are little more than a motley crew temporarily thrown together at random, as disaster response drills are rarely held.

Even if the participants are government heads or first-level officials, basic ability and know-ledge about organizing disaster prevention and relief mobilization is insufficient, often limiting the effectivenss of the efforts.

The disaster relief systems in the US and Japan are much more advanced. In addition to fire agencies under the control of the central government and fire departments, there are official crisis management departments handling disaster prevention and relief work.

I have twice visited Japan to study local disaster relief systems. I discovered that they implemented annual disaster relief drills on a prefectural level and that the government chiefs and junior level civil servants all took these drills seriously.

Several local governments in Japan would invite experts to attend emergency response meetings during a disaster in order to prevent rigid bureaucracy from interfering with disaster prevention and relief work decisions.

Although Taiwan's government can't strengthen disaster relief systems immediately, it should at least invite experts and demand that government officials place importance on coordinating disaster relief and organization mobilization in order to make the system more responsive and effective.

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