At an event in Taipei two weeks ago, Sylvia Feng (馮賢賢), the chief editor of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) communications policy for the 2012 and 2016 elections in Taiwan, lamented the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s lax approach to building up Taiwan’s defense systems in the face of military threats from China. At the same time as Feng spoke, a poster campaign that once again highlighted Taiwan’s “105,000” air raid shelters was underway, with colorful A4-sized messages pointing the way to “air defense shelter[s]” (防空避難) popping up outside buildings.
These two points may fit together better than it seems.
Every newly constructed high-rise building in Taiwan is legally mandated to come with an air raid shelter. This law is the reason why Taiwan’s National Police Agency last year released a report that suggested there are around 105,000 such shelters in Taiwan, with a total capacity of 86.65 million people, a lot more than Taiwan’s total population of around 23 million. The numbers compare favorably with neighboring countries Japan and South Korea which, according to The Liberty Times, have around 94,000 and 19,000 shelters respectively, despite having larger populations and territories. Taiwan’s bomb shelters are also known to figure in the thoughts of foreign companies operating inside Taiwan: “We have confirmed the location of several shelters near our office,” the local head of a Japanese semiconductor-related business told Nikkei Asia in December.
However, as the series of new posters marking the locations of the shelters were being put up, the campaign also served as a reminder of existing criticisms of how these numbers are really put together.
Although no full audit of the differing qualities of the shelters is publicly available, various reports note that many are made up of spaces like basement car parks, subway stations and underground shopping centers. This can be casually verified by looking at the National Police Agency map of the shelters, which shows the vast majority of the locations as being part of normal public and private buildings. Within this setup, key components of effective shelter appear to be missing.
“Taiwan is hot and humid and car parks don’t have any air conditioning. And there aren’t [any] sanitary facilities. [They’re] not suitable to serve as long-term shelter,” Bo-kai Jia (賈伯楷) of the Taiwan Militia Association told Deutsche Welle last August.
“It seem[s] intuitively obvious that the [capacity] numbers [have] been calculated using the area of the basement, by someone looking at a map and corresponding building plans, without regard to the real conditions of the buildings,” Michael Turton wrote in The Taipei Times last March. He also added that one Taiwanese urban planning official told him “building codes in Taiwan require basements to be constructed to withstand earthquakes. They aren’t specifically bomb-proofed, though.”
Reacting to these concerns, researchers working for Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan made a number of recommendations for improvements last June.
They wrote that while the building standards for such shelters are stipulated in government regulations, and some management practices are also set out — “apartment building residents are not allowed to pile up debris, set up fences, doors, or use it for business,” for instance — more regular inspections should take place. Furthermore, they wrote that shelters “must also be equipped with necessary life-support and protective materials, which must be inspected and supplemented by civil defense organizations on a regular basis.”
The responsibility for implementing these recommendations ultimately rests with Taiwan’s Ministry of Interior, and the primary legislation mandating the building of the shelters is the Civil Defense Law, put into effect in 2001.
However, Taiwan’s Construction Law and follow-up regulations currently appear far less demanding than, for example, the 195 pages of requirements Singapore offers publicly for private household shelters. The Singaporean document covers everything from the size and exact location of hollow-core concrete slabs to tests for door-locking mechanisms, while Taiwan’s regulations are, for the most part, far more vague. On ventilation, for instance, they offer only the following outline: “The air defense refuge equipment shall prevent water seepage, water leakage, stagnant water and mess. Lighting and ventilation facilities should be kept in good condition [emphasis added] and should be protected from moisture and kept available at all times.”
This seeming lack of detail is, anecdotally, reflected in the final product. I went to check out the newly-demarcated shelter in my own building and, like others, found a stuffy underground car park. No bomb-resistant blast door, no extravagant ventilation system, definitely no “life-support” materials. You wouldn’t want to be stuck in there for long on a hot day with a few hundred people.
Of course, putting Singaporean-level shelters in place on a large scale could be extremely costly and some experts have pointed out that air raid shelters are not designed to be occupied for long periods because missile attacks usually do not take place over a substantial period of time. However, even in those terms there appears to be some false advertising going on. My building’s car park can, according to the National Police Agency map of the shelters, hold up to 539 people. This is an absurdly high number, and — along with the new posters — suggestive of a PR exercise more than serious preparation for a worst-case scenario.
In other words, the idea that Taiwan really has 105,000 functional air raid shelters might be true if you use a very loose definition of what an air raid shelter is. But that number is probably conjuring an idea in most people’s minds that doesn’t match reality.