Written while riding the MRT train as we were leaving Taiwan.
Looking out over the forest of high rise buildings pushing up from what remains of magnificent verdant forests that once totally enveloped this rumbling and buckling island, it’s not difficult to be impressed by the Taiwanese ability to overcome adversity and hardship. The island suffered a major (7.6) earthquake just sixteen years ago that wreaked widespread havoc from an epicenter that was more or less dead centre of the island. This natural disaster occurred at 2am on the 21st September (now referred to simply as 921) resulted in 2,415 people killed, 11,305 injured, £10 billon damage to infrastructure, and 100,000 homes destroyed or severely damaged.
Many of the worst affacted (and most lethal) buildings were either “soft storey ” construction, (these had large open ground floors, often with supporting columns removed to “improve floor layouts”) or high rise residential blocks that were built to be just under fifty metres tall. All the buildings above this height proved to be far more robust, riding out the quake with no collapses and only very minor damage.
The aftermath investigation quickly established numerous cases of building code violations and bodged workmanship, in the wreckage of one, structural concrete beams were found to have been filled with garbage and old bottles! Many prosecutions followed, builders, architects and corrupt officials were all brought to account and a huge system flaw was revealed. This was that much less onerous building codes applied to sub-fifty metre buildings making them more attractive to developers. Whereas for buildings above 50 metres tall, a developer had to submit the designs, materials specification and structural calculations to a peer review by another independent contractor prior to a planning application. This second contractor would be jointly and severally liable in the event of structural failure.
Looking at the place now, one would be hard pressed to believe that a catastrophe of this size occurred only sixteen years earlier such has been the pace of reconstruction. Clearly the private sector was responsible for much of this reconstruction, but lessons had to be learned, working practices changed and controls applied.
So what conclusion have I arrived at, well it’s undoubtedly a fact that the private sector can get things done, but in a completely and free unrestrained market, only the foolish or irresponsible would trust it completely. What stands out for me is that a peer review process actually worked and in this case probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. Maybe it’s not a model that could be applied across the board, but the underlying element of true accountability can and should be. The current mantra of “compliance” just does not cut it for me, it allows organisations to reach a point (often decided by a non-specialist for financial or political reasons) and then stop irrespective of what is actually needed. Target met, signed off by the “compliance officer”, all arses covered, onwards and upward!
Post script. Less than a year after the quake, the government of Taiwan that had ruled continuously since 1945 lost the general election, the voters saw them as corrupt, complacent, self serving and not acting quickly or decisively enough. I’m hoping for a bit of a tremor on May7th to shake out our political dead wood 🙂