On Feb. 12, a magnitude 4 earthquake hit northern Taiwan. Since the quake’s epicenter was in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林), a rare occurrence, and occurred after midnight, it caused much public panic. The Ministry of the Interior therefore re-emphasized that 66,000 old buildings in the city have poor earthquake resistance, taking this opportunity to promote urban renewal for the sake of disaster prevention.
The problem is that since the Geology Act (地質法) was passed in late 2010, the government has used the excuse that it is trying to stabilize the real-estate market and avoid creating public panic to ignore Article 5 of the act, which states: “The central competent authority shall publicly announce areas with special geologic scenery, special geological environments, or potential geological hazards to be geologically sensitive areas.”
Why is the government only promoting urban renewal focused on disaster prevention? Is it helping construction companies to profit through urban renewal of old buildings with a low floor-area ratio?
There were many explanations as to the cause of the earthquake. Although the Central Weather Bureau immediately said that the quake was a stress adjustment that occurred as a result of lava cooling, most academics and experts disagreed, because the bureau did not provide concrete data to back up its statement. Disaster prevention is crucial to the safety of Taiwanese lives and wealth, and it is therefore a matter of great significance. However, it is necessary to clarify the causes of disasters so that the government can adapt its response correctly.
Whenever an earthquake has occurred in recent years, the government has tried to promote urban renewal to improve disaster prevention, targeting old buildings with a low floor-area ratio.
Looking back at the magnitude 7.3 921 Earthquake on Sept. 21, 1999, and the magnitude 6.8 earthquake on March 31, 2002, they both caused serious damage across the nation. Further examination of the types of buildings that collapsed or were damaged in the earthquakes, especially old buildings in Taipei and New Taipei City, found that most damaged buildings were 10 to 20 years old, with 10 to 14 stories. On the contrary, the ministry claimed that 30-to-50-year-old buildings were in most need of urban renewal to improve disaster prevention, but such buildings actually had better earthquake resistance since they were lower and usually built side-by-side. As a result, the damage to such buildings was insignificant.
Urban renewal to improve disaster prevention should be supported. As Article 7 of the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例) clearly states, to prevent major disasters, “The municipal, county [city] authority should designate the renewal area based on the existing situation to draw or revise the urban renewal plan.”
The act serves as the legal basis for urban renewal for disaster prevention. The problem is that we do not know in which areas natural disasters are more likely to strike.
Obviously, the basis for evaluating this issue lies in the geographic conditions of an area, instead of the age of a building. Take the Taipei 101 building for example: If we move the building to the top of the Chelungpu (車籠埔) fault in central Taiwan, even a strong building like that would be unable to withstand a big earthquake capable of moving a mountain. For example, the almost century-old Presidential Office Building withstood both earthquakes better than all the 10-to-20-year-old buildings. It is thus evident that the age of a building is not the problem.