Bold Ambition Needed to Cement Taiwan’s Quake Recovery

While much has been written on the human-made threats to Taiwan, Wednesday April 3 was a reminder of the imminent and real threats lurking beneath the very ground we live on. Right as the morning rush hour was reaching its peak, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake (the U.S. Geological Survey reported it as a 7.4 temblor) hit off the coast of eastern Hualien County. It was the largest quake experienced in Taiwan since the 921 Jiji earthquake in 1999, and it was felt as far away as Shanghai and Hong Kong.  

Fortunately, the loss of life and destruction in April was nowhere near the scale of 1999, when nearly 2,500 people lost their lives. Only a handful of older buildings toppled or collapsed, and the total number of deaths appeared to be under 20. The strengthening of construction codes and their efficient enforcement, which have improved building quality over the last 25 years, can be attributed at least in part to Taiwan’s democratization since martial law was lifted in 1987. It means that public opinion now has more weight than pressure from the construction industry. 

Domestic and international media were quick to attribute the relatively limited impact to the progress in building and infrastructure quality, as well as the resilience and stoic response of Taiwan’s people. Many residents calmly continued their journey to work after checking their apartments for damage. Metro systems, the high-speed rail, and the railways serving cities in the west returned to normal operations within an hour of the quake.  

Although east coast road and rail services to Hualien via Yilan were severed, they were restored to some degree later the same day, a testament to the efficiency and professionalism of the authorities tasked with maintaining Taiwan’s critical infrastructure. Unfortunately, Taroko National Park sustained massive damage that could see the popular tourist attraction closed for several years. 

The focus now turns to long-term recovery. Taiwan should take this opportunity to plan and (re)build resilient infrastructure that ensures the East Coast can remain connected to the rest of the island in the event of large earthquakes, typhoons, and landslides. Road and rail link upgrades – including extending the high-speed rail to Yilan and beyond – should be prioritized. The Suhua Highway Improvement Project to bypass dangerous sections of the thoroughfare, completed in 2020, should be extended to ensure the highway reaches Hualien and is upgraded or tunneled in the parts that remain single lanes.  

Radical plans – perhaps a Swiss-style tunnel system connecting Taichung to Hualien through the Central Mountain Range – would drive investment and create jobs across Nantou and Hualien counties. Finally, improvements should be made to upgrade sustainable tourism infrastructure, including the necessary renovations of Taroko National Park, to capitalize on the rebound in visitor numbers expected once the park reopens.  

As President Lai Ching-te and the new administration take office on May 20, these challenges will need to be addressed. Taiwan has shown time and again – most recently on April 3 – that it has the capability and determination to meet them. What remains to be seen is whether it has the ambition.