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article imageTaiwan quake highlights hi-tech island's shoddy building past

By Amber WANG (AFP)     Feb 7, 2018 in World

Taiwan has built itself a reputation for cutting edge technology, efficient public transport and safe streets. But an earthquake has again highlighted the well-off island's history of shoddy construction and questionable safety standards.

It has become a familiar sight. A quake strikes Taiwan, rattling homes and nerves but leaving most of the epicentre intact, except for one or two isolated spots where it strikes with deadly force.

Usually the collapsed buildings are old, built before Taiwan brought in better building codes, and still have not been reinforced.

Rescuers in the eastern tourist city of Hualien are racing against the clock to locate missing residents in a precariously tilting apartment block after a moderately strong 6.4 quake struck overnight.

At least seven people have died across the city and some 88 people remain unaccounted for.

For many there is a grim sense of deja vu.

Exactly two years earlier, on 6 February 2016, a quake of the same magnitude hit the western city of Tainan.

Rescue and emergency workers check for survivors inside a damaged building  the morning after a 6.4 ...
Rescue and emergency workers check for survivors inside a damaged building, the morning after a 6.4 magnitude quake hit the eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien, on February 7, 2018

Again most of the city's buildings successfully bore the brunt of the shockwaves coursing through the ground. But one apartment block collapsed in on itself, killing 117 people.

Prosecutors said there were flaws in the building including inadequate steel reinforcement bars while relatives of those killed were enraged when photos showed foam and tin cans had been used as filling in concrete structures exposed by the very quake that brought the building down.

Five people were found guilty and sentenced to five years of imprisonment over the disaster, including the developer and two architects.

- Older buildings risky -

New building codes were brought in after a devastating 1999 earthquake that left 2,400 people dead.

The codes put in place stricter requirements to make structures more quake-proof, including increasing the number and resilience of reinforcing bars.

But many say enforcement remains patchy while not enough has been done to reinforce some of the buildings that went up before then.

Rescue efforts are focusing on an apartment block in Hualien left tilting at a precarious angle
Rescue efforts are focusing on an apartment block in Hualien left tilting at a precarious angle

Cheng Ming-chang, former head of the Tainan Civil Engineers Association in southern Taiwan, told AFP the "biggest barrier" to quake preparation was funding to reinforce the older buildings.

"People who live in older buildings tend to be less well-off. Even though they are aware of safety issues, they feel like there's nothing they can really do and they either take an 'ostrich attitude' and ignore it or they just choose to move to a new place," he told AFP.

"If there are similar strength quakes in the future, it might be unavoidable that old buildings will be damaged," he added.

Over the last three decades Taiwan has gone from an impoverished military dictatorship to a thriving democracy and one of Asia's wealthier societies.

The average GDP per capita is around $32,000, triple that of mainland China, above tech-savvy South Korea ($27,000) and not far behind Japan ($38,000).

Much of the more recent wealth has been built off the back of a thriving microchip and other high-tech industries that fuel the world's smartphones and computers.

Bullet trains zip up and down the west coast, the capital Taipei boasts a meticulously clean and expansive subway and crime rates are low.

But the island is still blighted by a reputation for cost-cutting shortcuts and a cultural disregard for safety standards.

- 'Gambling on luck' -

In 2014 and 2015 a spate of easily avoidable accidents caused widespread public anger including two plane crashes, a massive petrochemical pipeline explosion that killed 32 and a fire at a waterpark that killed 15 and left more than 500 injured. In each case human error was to blame.

Major buildings were left balanced precariously at angles after the 6.4-magnitude Taiwan quake
Major buildings were left balanced precariously at angles after the 6.4-magnitude Taiwan quake

South Korea, which has charted a similar economic course to Taiwan, has also seen a string of avoidable disasters from the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 that killed more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, to a fire that tore through a hospital last month killing 15.

During her successful election campaign in 2016 President Tsai Ing-wen promised to prioritise building safety and review the resistance of older buildings to quakes and other disasters.

Chern Jenn-chuan, a civil engineering professor at National Taiwan University, said the government needed to spearhead safety improvements because many people are complacent and reluctant to spend money on reinforcement.

"The public's awareness for building safety is not sufficient and people tend to think that 'I won't be so unfortunate'," he said.

"They are gambling on luck."

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