Summary: Amidst the recent devastation caused by a significant earthquake in Taiwan on April 3, the nation’s response showcased its progress in earthquake readiness, often overlooked in the headlines. Since the 1999 Jiji earthquake, Taiwan has made substantial strides in fortifying its infrastructure, improving construction standards, and advancing early-warning systems. This can serve as a model for global disaster preparedness.

In the early hours of April 3, 2024, Taiwan was struck by a significant earthquake, with its epicenter located off the eastern coast. The quake, which was the strongest to hit Taiwan in 25 years and measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, sent tremors rippling across the island and awakened memories of past devastation. At the time this was published, the earthquake and subsequent tremors have claimed just under 20 lives and injured at least 1,099 people.

However, amid the destruction, injury, and loss of life, Taiwan’s response showcased a remarkable display of resilience and preparedness, underscoring the nation’s progress in earthquake readiness. It’s a story largely missing from the headlines.

For Taiwan, situated in the seismically active Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean, earthquakes are not unfamiliar. The island has endured numerous seismic events throughout its history, each leaving an indelible mark on Taiwan’s cities and people. The devastating 1999 Jiji earthquake, similar in magnitude to the April 3 quake, claimed more than 2,400 lives, injured more than 11,000 people, resulted in roughly $300 billion in damages, and caused widespread destruction; it served as a wake-up call for Taiwan to bolster its preparedness and earthquake response mechanisms.

In the decades since, Taiwan has made large strides in fortifying its infrastructure, implementing rigorous building codes, and fostering a culture of earthquake preparedness. These efforts were evident in the aftermath of the recent earthquake, where the impact, though significant, was mitigated in no small part by the progress Taiwan made toward earthquake readiness and response in the decades following the 1999 Jiji quake.

Image of the city of Taipei at night in the 8-bit art style
“Taipei 101 at night, in the style of 8-bit art—ar 16:9,” Midjourney, Generative Image AI, @tonymmorley

One of the cornerstones of Taiwan’s earthquake preparedness strategy is its robust infrastructure resilience. The country has invested heavily in constructing buildings, bridges, and critical infrastructure engineered to withstand seismic forces. Strict building codes, enforced through rigorous inspections and regulations, ensure that new structures adhere to stringent seismic standards. Additionally, retrofitting programs have been implemented to reinforce older buildings, reducing their vulnerability to earthquake damage. Such measures undoubtedly played a crucial role during the April 3 earthquake, preventing widespread collapse and minimizing casualties, injuries, and infrastructure damage.

Taiwan’s advanced early-warning system likely played a nontrivial role in mitigating the quake’s impact. The nation’s seismic network, comprising a dense array of sensors strategically positioned across the island, provides real-time data on seismic activity. This allows authorities to issue timely alerts, giving residents precious seconds to take cover and emergency services valuable time to prepare. The effectiveness of this system was demonstrated during the recent earthquake, with warnings disseminated swiftly, enabling individuals to seek shelter and prepare for the quake and, following aftershocks, minimizing the risk of injury. As an NBC News report says:

Taiwan’s sophisticated early-warning system is also an important part of its safety infrastructure. The system relies on an islandwide network of seismic instruments; when a large quake happens, the system sends messages to people’s phones and automatically cuts into live TV programming to give residents seconds of warning.

Taiwan’s success in preparing for and averting the worst-case scenario following such a large quake is part of a larger global trend of preparedness and resilience in the face of natural disasters. Annual deaths resulting from natural disasters of all types have been trending downward globally for over a century. Global economic growth has improved civilization’s capacity to build better structures, fortify critical infrastructure, and bolster emergency response, and the results are evident, both on the ground and in the data. In the last century, from 1920 to 2020, annual deaths from disasters fell from 523,892 to 41,046; still far too many individual human tragedies but also remarkable human progress.

Bar chart displaying the annual number of deaths from disasters between 1900 and 2020

Taiwan’s emphasis on public education and community preparedness has fostered a resilient society capable of responding effectively to seismic events. Through widespread awareness campaigns, educational programs, and drills, Taiwan has empowered its citizens with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate emergencies confidently. Schools, workplaces, and households routinely conduct earthquake drills, ensuring that individuals are well versed in evacuation procedures.

Furthermore, Taiwan’s commitment to technological innovation has yielded groundbreaking solutions to enhance earthquake preparedness. The development of cutting-edge seismological research and monitoring technologies has enabled scientists to gain deeper insights into earthquake behavior, facilitating more accurate predictions and risk assessments. Additionally, advancements in engineering and construction techniques have led to the creation of innovative seismic-resistant materials and designs, further bolstering the resilience of infrastructure.

The recent earthquake in Taiwan serves as a sobering reminder of the ever-present threat posed by seismic activity. However, it also stands as a testament to Taiwan’s remarkable progress in earthquake and disaster preparedness. Through strategic investments, carefully considered regulation, and proactive measures, Taiwan has transformed itself into a global leader in earthquake resilience. The nation’s ability to withstand and recover from seismic events exemplifies the power of foresight, collaboration, and innovation in building a safer, more resilient future.

As Taiwan continues to navigate the complex challenges posed by natural disasters, the lessons gleaned from its experiences serve as invaluable guideposts for nations worldwide. By prioritizing preparedness, investing in resilient infrastructure, and building effective detection and communication systems, countries can mitigate the impact of earthquakes and safeguard the lives and livelihoods of their citizens. At the time of this writing, many families are still missing loved ones, and the economic costs and lives lost have yet to be fully understood. However, the progress in disaster preparedness made in the past two decades has undoubtedly saved many hundreds if not thousands of lives.

This article was published at the Progress Forum on 4/4/2024.