Each year since the 921 Earthquake on Sept. 21, 1999, to learn from such disasters, the nation observes a National Disaster Prevention Day on Sept. 21, when drills are conducted and educational events are held.
However, with an increasing number of extreme weather events due to climate change and an aging demographic due to societal changes, Taiwan can expect to see more fatalities and injuries from disasters.
Causing 2,444 deaths, the 921 Earthquake remains the most deadly natural disaster to befall Taiwan in the past 20 years. The second most deadly was Typhoon Morakot in 2009, which led to 681 deaths, followed by Typhoon Toraji in 2001 with 111 deaths and 103 missing, and the Meinong earthquake that struck Kaohsiung last year, killing 117 people.
National Disaster Prevention Day holds drills for earthquakes and tsunamis, which cause the most catastrophic damage, but the effect of climate change on natural disasters is growing, with the number of dead and injured increasingly the result of extreme weather events such as typhoons and flooding.
Typhoon Morakot caused 2,261 people to lose their lives or sustain injuries. The following three years were relatively quiet. Then, in 2013, 172 were either killed or hurt by typhoons and flooding, a figure that climbed to 855 in 2015 and then 1,106 last year.
These figures do not include flood disaster victims in the wake of typhoons and, despite the high death and injury toll of Morakot, the effect of climate change in terms of economic damage and loss is clearly on the rise.
On the other hand, with fewer wooden structures being built, improvements in firefighting facilities and the introduction of fire prevention checks, there has been a huge drop in the number of fires and the number of deaths incurred as a result of fires.
In 2010, there was a historic low of only 83 deaths by fire, although that figure did rise to 169 — with 261 injured — last year.
Looking at the specifics of the victims, the main reason for the large-scale increase in fatalities and injuries was older men living alone in old apartment buildings of less than five floors causing a fire at dinner time, when electrical equipment caught fire or when they were careless using a flame.
Two suppositions can be drawn from the above.
The first is that, over the past eight years, the number of people affected by typhoons and flooding caused by climate change has, on average, exceeded those affected by fires.
The second is that the aging population and the breakup of the family unit has weakened the social structure, and that disaster prevention preparation, designated meeting areas, specialist training and equipment and facilities are still essentially focused on young, able-bodied urban populations and predominantly guided by extinguishing fires, while disaster prevention education tends to be concentrated in public or large teaching institutions.
While this approach might cater nicely to the efficiencies of the economy of scale, it is actually focusing on the group less likely to fall victim to fire over the past few years.
Nobody is arguing against the importance of firefighting or earthquake disaster prevention efforts. However, cleaving to old approaches — like declining to change the proportion of classical Chinese to vernacular used in education — and refusing to face up to the future challenge of fire disasters will only lead to tears.
Disaster prevention needs to keep pace with the times. One way is to shift the focus to what older people living alone are doing at dinnertime. This might actually reduce the number of fire victims.
Lin Thung-hong is an associate research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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