Charitable Technology

When disasters strike, aid providers are often challenged to offer food and water to victims as quickly as it is needed. Over the decades, Tzu Chi has developed some equipment to assist volunteers to deliver aid better and faster.

While a lot of equipment for conducting relief missions can be purchased on the open market, some special-purpose items are not commercially available. The product specifications for these items are often very exact and different from what most consumers desire. As far as manufacturers are concerned, the demand for these goods is too small. They do not mass-produce such equipment because there is no money to be made. What company would incur the expense of designing or modifying a product, just to get an order for five units once every three years?

Tzu Chi has been involved with disaster relief for decades. The foundation’s aim is to ease the suffering of disaster victims as quickly as possible. To enhance aid delivery capability, volunteers have created tools that are not commercially available. Because disaster areas typically lack resources, these customized items usually meet the following criteria: easy to use, practical, low maintenance, mobile, and stand-alone.

Here we showcase three items from the Tzu Chi aid toolkit.


A Modular Mobile Kitchen 

Unique features

Able to cook enough to feed 900 people in three hours and can be transported on a small truck


Occasions where it has been used

TransAsia plane crash in Taipei (2015) and the search and rescue mission after an earthquake in Tainan (2016), both in Taiwan

On September 21, 1999, a horrendous earthquake wreaked havoc in central Taiwan and took 2,415 lives. Tzu Chi volunteers throughout the island rushed to help. Some lent a hand to victims directly, and some served by cooking meals in the kitchens of Tzu Chi facilities, packing the freshly prepared food into boxes, and then trucking it to shelters for quake victims.

This arrangement, however, could not reach victims located far from such kitchens or in places where roads had been made impassable by the temblor. For those victims, volunteers brought in stoves and cylinders of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and cooked in open fields.

Such temporary arrangements were not ideal, not to mention unsafe. The gas lines for the LPG cylinders had to be laid across open ground, food was prepared outside in huge woks, and water was boiled in the midst of bustling crowds of people. Quake victims or volunteers could trip over the exposed gas lines or could suffer burns from overturned hot woks or boiling pots of water.

Master Cheng Yen pointed out these hazards after seeing these “temporary kitchens” in disaster areas and ordered a two-pronged approach to address this issue. First, where possible, kitchens were to be installed in Tzu Chi facilities that did not already have them; and second, a mobile kitchen was to be devised that could go to places where in-building kitchens could not reach.

Mobile kitchens are quite common in Taiwan. Street food vendors have long used them to prepare their fares at curbsides, street corners, or wherever their customers are.  Such vehicles, however, did not make the grade for Tzu Chi’s purposes. They were good for preparing food for a few dozen patrons over lunchtime, but Tzu Chi needed something that could cook quickly for hundreds of people.

Cai Jian-yin (蔡堅印), who was tasked to spearhead the mobile kitchen project, needed to look elsewhere or make one himself. The kitchen that he envisioned had to use large pots and pans—everything about the kitchen needed to be ramped up in size to prepare large quantities of food quickly. At the same time, the mobile kitchen couldn’t become so large that it would be difficult to transport. It was clear that such a unique kitchen was not likely to be found in the marketplace as a ready-made item. A new design would require a high level of customization.

Cai would have to make it himself, but even a career working with cars as a master mechanic had not prepared him in any way for the task at hand. He had never modified, much less designed a vehicle, and he did not know the first thing about mechanical drawing.

The task was daunting, but as a devout disciple of Master Cheng Yen, Cai expected himself to carry out her mission as his own. Besides, he was interested in the task. He bravely took on the challenge.

Volunteers cook in a version 1 mobile kitchen.  Lu Xue-zheng

 Learning as he went

Cai had to decide on one aspect of the kitchen before he could even begin to consider any other details: Should the kitchen be fixed on a vehicle, or should it be a separate unit that could be loaded on any flatbed truck?

As he was weighing those alternatives, someone donated a 6.4-ton truck to the foundation. That gave him an opportunity to try the idea of attaching the kitchen to the truck.

He had cooked for Tzu Chi activities many times, so he was quite familiar with what things needed to be in a kitchen. In the early planning stages of the project, he asked himself many questions as he mentally stepped through the process of preparing food in disaster areas. To deliver the desired high volume of food needed, the mobile kitchen would have to use rice cookers with a 50-person capacity. How much time would it take to cook rice from start to finish? How much time would it take to have enough steamed rice ready for 900 people? If cooking started at 8:00 a.m. and everything had to be ready by 11:00 a.m., what could he do to streamline the cooking process? Where should the rice cookers and other things be placed in the kitchen so that workers could move around without bumping into equipment or each other too frequently?

He drew some rough diagrams of his kitchen and presented them to the Master, who then asked him to produce three-dimensional drawings of his plans. Such drawings were beyond his skill set, so he hurried to enlist the help of two volunteers who were experienced in such drawings. The three of them worked closely for the next two months before they finished the drawings that fleshed out Cai’s initial rough ideas.

The design accounted for regulations on vehicular height, width, volume, and weight. It would have no problem passing government inspection, and it would be road-ready once it was finished.

After seeing Cai’s presentation, the Master instructed him to produce a wood prototype. He proceeded to construct a wooden kitchen on top of the donated truck and equipped it with rice cookers, gas stoves, counters, and everything else needed.

When he finished, he presented it to Master Cheng Yen for inspection. The Master was grateful for Cai’s effort, but at first sight spotted a flaw to be addressed. Sitting on the bed of a truck, the floor of the kitchen area was about one meter (3.3 feet) above the ground, making the mobile kitchen about one and a half stories high. A volunteer worker would have to climb short access steps to reach the elevated kitchen. What if someone fell off? Master Cheng Yen’s verdict: “It can’t be so high off the ground.”

There was another problem as well, related to the first. To operate a truck that size, a person would need to have a truck driver’s license, something most people, including most Tzu Chi volunteers, would not possess. This requirement would thus greatly reduce the number of volunteers who could drive the truck.

Cai went back to the drawing board. He had to scale it down.

This time he went with a 3.5-ton truck. Any licensed driver could operate it, and many Tzu Chi recycling volunteers drove trucks of that size to collect recyclables.

Cai went through the steps to put things together a second time, designing the floor of the workspace to be height-adjustable. Now a six-foot cook could work there as comfortably as a five-foot one.

The finished kitchen was equipped with three 50-person rice cookers, two high-speed stoves for boiling liquids, two high-speed stoves for stir-fry woks measuring 75 centimeters (30 inches) across, a one-ton (264-gallon) water tank, a water pump, a simple water filter, and other necessary equipment like lights, kitchen exhaust hoods, etc. It also had room for four people to work at the same time.

Having completed something that he had never done before, Cai delivered the final product in 2001. The mobile kitchen passed government inspection, and it was put into service.

This wooden proof-of-concept model of a mobile kitchen fitted to a 6.4-ton truck was not produced, in part because it was too high above the ground. The shortcomings revealed in this model helped Cai Jian-yin to devise the first generation of mobile kitchen.

Underutilized, thankfully

Cai first used the mobile kitchen in August 2001 to cook for 300 actors and workers in a Tzu Chi musical performance in Hsinchu, northern Taiwan.

Before the grand opening of Taipei Tzu Chi Hospital on May 8, 2005, Cai drove the kitchen to the hospital, where it was used for a month providing meals for landscaping workers.

The kitchen was normally stationed at the Tzu Chi Zhudong branch office, not far from an army base for tanks in Hukou, Hsinchu. When disaster drills were held in Hsinchu, the kitchen would often be drafted to participate. At these times, it provided meals for participants that often included soldiers, police, firefighters, and civilians.

It even joined the procession of official vehicles for military inspections. “The military and emergency response organizations hold our mobile kitchen in high regard,” Cai said proudly of his brainchild.

During the first dozen years of its existence, the kitchen was used largely for such non-disaster occasions. It was akin to a battleship always in training and at the ready, but never called to action in a real war. Cai was glad that the kitchen was not needed for disasters for such a long time.

The version 2 mobile kitchen, lifted off the ground by its own hydraulic legs, ready to be loaded onto a truck





Cai Jian-yin, the designer of the Tzu Chi mobile kitchen


Improvements were made to a few tools in Tzu Chi’s disaster response toolkit in 2010. For example, its mobile water filtering system was improved that year. Such improvements prompted Cai to consider whether to update the mobile kitchen.

He and his teammates critically examined the kitchen. “Food vendors use their kitchens year round, but we don’t,” said Tzu Chi staffer and volunteer Liu Zong-yan (柳宗言). “Tying the truck to the kitchen is perhaps not such a good idea. When the kitchen is idle, the truck can’t be used for other purposes.” In addition, should the truck break down, the kitchen would be likewise out of service until the truck could be repaired. For these reasons, they decided to make a separate, stand-alone unit that could be hauled by a 3.5-ton truck.

Cai and other volunteers thus began designing the second version of the kitchen. Now, when the kitchen is not being used, the truck can be deployed to do other things, and if the truck breaks down during a mission, another vehicle of the same size can easily take its place without losing much time. Tzu Chi volunteers own more than 900 such vehicles for collecting recyclables.

With the experience that he had gained from the first version, Cai also made the new version even more compact. Smaller though it is, its ability to cook a four-dish, one-soup meal for 900 people in three hours remains the same.

Volunteer Zhang Min-zhong (張敏忠) divided the kitchen into six equal units, three on each side. One unit is dedicated for a dishwashing sink. The five remaining spaces can be configured to accept two stacked-up 50-person rice cookers, a soup pot, a wok, a food steamer, or a storage compartment. The wok unit can use wood as an alternative fuel in the event that LPG is unavailable.

Each of the four sides of the kitchen is completely covered by a one-piece metal panel when the kitchen is not in use. The panels protect the kitchen during transport or storage. Each side cover can be hydraulically lifted to allow unobstructed access to the kitchen’s interior.

The kitchen is fitted with solar panels to provide electricity. A one-ton water tank is located at the bottom and functions as the floor of the unit. A manual pump extracts water for use.

The mobile kitchen has a rectangular footprint that mirrors the shape of the bed of a 3.5-ton flatbed truck. The unit sits on its own frame with four vertically adjustable posts, one at each corner of the rectangle. To transport the mobile kitchen, the posts are manually slid sideways away from the kitchen. Legs then descend hydraulically from the posts and push against the ground. This action raises the kitchen until it is high enough off the ground that a truck can be backed underneath. The kitchen is then lowered until it rests squarely on the bed of the truck. Once the legs are fully retracted into their posts, the kitchen is fastened securely to the truck and is good to go.

Once at the desired location, the process is reversed. The legs again extend to lift the unit off the truck bed. The truck is removed from underneath the kitchen, and the legs are retracted until the kitchen is resting solidly on the ground. The mobile kitchen is ready for work.

The first generation mobile kitchen, fixed on a truck bed, features a height-adjustable platform on which workers stand. Liu Shou-jin

In service

This new version of the mobile kitchen was completed in 2013, and it was first used in action in a disaster in February 2015. That event was the search and rescue mission after a TransAsia plane crashed in a river in Nankang, Taipei.

Volunteers initially cooked for rescue workers in a nearby Tzu Chi kitchen and trucked the food to the disaster site. But the crash site was in an open area and the disaster happened during a cold snap, so the food became cold very quickly after it arrived. This was not particularly appealing to the rescue workers who had to get into and out of the freezing cold river in search of the missing. They needed hot food or drink to bolster their strength for their difficult tasks.

That was exactly the kind of problem that the mobile kitchen was designed to solve. Volunteers drove the unit from its base in Hsinchu to Nankang, and rescue workers were thereafter able to receive hot food and drink to keep them warm.

About a year later, the kitchen was dispatched to Tainan, southern Taiwan, after an earthquake had toppled a large apartment building complex. This time, main meals were cooked at the local Tzu Chi facility, and the mobile kitchen was used to cook noodle soups for snacks and to brew coffee. Between February 10 and 13, 2016, volunteers used the mobile kitchen to make more than 7,000 cups of coffee and hundreds of servings of noodle soup.

The six spaces in a version 2 mobile kitchen are configured differently depending upon local needs.


Taiwan  One space for two rice cookers, two for woks, one for a soup pot, one for a food steamer, and one for a sink.



Zimbabwe  Three spaces for six rice cookers, one for a wok, one for a sink, and one for storage.


The Philippines  Two spaces for four rice cookers, two for woks, one for a sink, and one for storage.

Photos courtesy of Zhang Min-zhong

Aside from the second version of the mobile kitchen used in Taiwan, a few copies have been made for the Philippines, Malaysia, and Zimbabwe. Each unit is fitted with the modules that best meet the needs of local volunteers.

For example, volunteers in Zimbabwe need the kitchen to cook steamed rice more than anything else, so the kitchen that Cai made for them features one wok module to cook one or two vegetable dishes, three rice cooker modules (six rice cookers), and one storage module to keep six extra rice pots for the rice cookers. There are enough rice cookers in this version to prepare steamed rice for 300 people at one time. When one batch of rice is ready, the six rice pots—with piping hot steamed rice inside—can be taken out of the cookers to serve people, and the six extra rice pots—with raw rice soaked in water—can be put into the cookers to begin cooking another round. This can be repeated as many times as needed to feed all the hungry people.

This configuration of the mobile kitchen delivers the maximum amount of steamed rice, exactly what Tino Chu (朱金財), the Tzu Chi volunteer in charge in Zimbabwe, needs when he and his fellow volunteers serve free meals to the large number of needy Zimbabweans.

Cai, an amateur in kitchen and automobile design, created a practical mobile kitchen to serve people in distress. It has enriched the tool kit that Tzu Chi uses in its mission to help the needy.

The version 2 mobile kitchen in action in Tainan after an earthquake in 2016 Liu Zong-yan


A Mobile Water Purifier

Unique features

It can be quickly set up to filter out impurities and produce quality potable water in large quantities, up to 15 cubic meters (3,963 gallons) a day, enough to hydrate 6,000 people.

Occasions where it has been used

After Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2013), and after Typhoon Soudelor in Wulai, northern Taiwan (2015)

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

That was what happened in the greater Taipei area in August 2015. Though Typhoon Soudelor had just battered much of Taiwan, Taipei suffered relatively minor damage. However, the storm heavily impacted the city’s water sources. The turbidity of water spiked to 39,000 nephelometric turbidity units (NTU), far more than the 6,000 NTU that the municipal waterworks were equipped to process. Consequently, the city was unable to produce clean water for its customers for a few days.

When the turbidity decreased to a manageable level, the city was again able to produce a normal water supply to most of its customers—but not those living in Wulai, a remote upstream mountain village. Here the typhoon had left behind thick layers of mud. Wulai residents struggled to clear the mud from their homes and community, all without a supply of running water.

In response, Tzu Chi sent a mobile water purifier to Wulai to help out.

A water tank on a truck was filled with water from a stream, and the truck was driven to a boy scout campground where the water was pumped into the Tzu Chi water purifier. The unit quickly filtered out the impurities and produced clean water for distribution.

Tzu Chi volunteer Chen Jian-hong (陳建宏) collected a small sample of the clean water to test its fitness for human consumption. He first tested the conductivity of the water, which measured 9.4 μS/cm. “Anything below 10.0 indicates a low concentration of ions and heavy metals in the water,” Chen explained. He next tested the turbidity of the water, which came in at .02 NTU, far better than the ceiling of 2.0 NTU that the government had set for drinking water.

The water was fit for consumption, but Chen and his fellow volunteers drank the water themselves as a final test, just to make sure it was safe to drink before allowing it to be distributed.

The volunteers had given out collapsible water bottles to area residents. Each ten-liter (2.6-gallon) bottle was enough to last a family of four for a day. Volunteers also delivered water to families who could not come to the water distribution site.

The purifier has a maximum capacity of 15 cubic meters (3,963 gallons) of potable water a day, enough to keep 6,000 people hydrated, assuming that each person drinks 85 ounces a day.

In 2013, three sets of second-generation Tzu Chi water purifiers developed by the Industrial Technology Research Institute were airlifted to Leyte, the Philippines, to provide potable water for victims of Typhoon Haiyan. courtesy of Chen Jian-hong


Tzu Chi water purifiers, versions 1 and 2

The foundation has used mobile water purifiers since 2000, and they have evolved since then.

The first generation water purifier, designed much like a water treatment plant, was housed in a 20-foot freight container. It could produce 500 cubic meters (132,085 gallons) of clean water a day. Its high capacity came at the expense of reduced mobility; its large size made it impractical, if not impossible, to transport to many disaster locations.

The second generation was much more miniaturized and simplified. Tzu Chi spelled out the specifications and placed an order with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). ITRI employees Zhou Shan-shan (周珊珊) and Chen Jian-hong were among the key members who custom-built the unit for Tzu Chi.

The foundation wanted the unit to fit on a Tzu Chi emergency response boat, so the ITRI made the product 110 cm long, 110 cm wide, and 120 cm tall (3.6 x 3.6 x 3.94 ft). It processed raw water through a BioNET tank and an ultrafiltration tank. The BioNET used plastic foam to filter out particulate matter and provide surface areas to which microorganisms could attach themselves. The microorganisms would then break down pollutants. The ultrafiltration tank featured a membrane so fine that anything larger than eight hundredths of a micrometer could not pass through.

Though the exact size of that ultra small measurement is probably hard for most people to fathom, suffice it to say that bacteria generally measure one micrometer across, or about 12 times larger than the pores in this membrane. E. coli, the bacterium used in testing water for fecal contamination, is about 1.8 micrometers in diameter. As a result, the ultrafiltration tank can filter out 99 percent of all known types of bacteria.

To further bolster water quality, the design team added a submersible pump to take in water only from the middle layer of a raw water source such as a pond, avoiding debris in the top layer and sediment at the bottom. The team also added an ultraviolet lamp for its bactericidal effect on bacteria, viruses, yeasts and mildew, activated carbon to capture organic matter, and ion-exchange polymers to remove poisonous heavy metal ions and replace them with more innocuous ions.

This second-generation purifier has an output of five cubic meters (1,321 gallons) of clean water a day, enough to meet the daily drinking needs of 2,000 people.

The purifier can be mounted on a small boat, and a water boiling system can be fixed on a second boat. With these two systems in place, the instant rice developed by nuns at the Jing Si Abode, the Buddhist convent founded by Master Cheng Yen, can be made into hot steamed rice. This can keep disaster victims from hunger and tide them over in their darkest moments.

Being able to put the water purification system and water boiling system on boats makes them more versatile in flooded disaster areas. If the disaster area can be reached by road, the two systems can be mounted on small trucks.

The team showed the systems to Master Cheng Yen on November 22, 2011, when she was visiting the Tzu Chi Guandu Complex in Taipei. She promptly asked them to make potable water from some pond water in the complex.

Though it had no industrial pollutants, the pond, like most other ponds, was rich in slime, sediments, algae, rotten materials, and bacteria. Zhou Shan-shan and her teammates drew water from the pond, fed it through their water purifier, and collected the treated water. The kitchen on the premises used the water to cook lunch for the Master and volunteers. The equipment passed the test with flying colors.

Volunteers test and practice operating a pair of boats fitted with a water purifier (left) and a water boiler (right) on the Keelung River.   Chen Jian-hong


Tzu Chi water purifier, version 3

Typhoon Haiyan pummeled the Philippines in November 2013, killing at least 6,300 people and forcing an untold number of people from their homes. Drinking water was in short supply.

Tzu Chi dispatched three mobile water purifiers to Leyte Province, central Philippines, as part of its aid mission. That was the first time that the purifiers were field tested. Chen Jian-hong went with his team to work the units. They set up three water distribution centers in Tacloban, the capital city of Leyte.

They checked the local river water for the extent of contamination and found it suitable for the purifiers to treat. However, many human and animal corpses had fallen into local rivers, which also abounded with human and animal waste. Considering what local people would feel about the water source, the team chose to draw raw water from wells to feed the water purifiers.

Working in Tacloban, which is situated on Leyte Gulf, Chen observed that disaster areas on shorelines could easily become inundated with seawater, due to powerful tidal surges that followed strong storms or earthquakes. He knew that raw salt water would remain salty even after being processed by his water purifier. He felt a need to upgrade the purifier so that it could desalinate salt water. Clearly, regular osmosis could not help Chen filter salt out of the water. To that end, he decided to incorporate reverse osmosis (RO) capability into the next generation, version 3, of the water purifier.

The introduction of salty water and the necessity for added pressure made it necessary for Chen and his team to greatly modify version 2. Among other changes, the whole system needed to be made salt resistant, and the motor needed to be enlarged to generate the required pressure. In the end, version 3 was much larger than its predecessor.

It was so much larger that it could not fit in a small boat anymore. The team enlisted the help of Cai Jian-yin, the designer of the Tzu Chi mobile kitchen. Cai had made a stand-alone kitchen that could be hauled on a 3.5-ton flatbed truck.

Working together, Cai and the water purifier team packed the newest water purifier system into a container of about 320 x 190 x 230 cm (10.5 x 6.23 x 7.55 ft). It was about nine times as big as the previous version.

Like the mobile kitchen, this water purifier container could be hydraulically raised or lowered by its own built-in legs to allow a flatbed truck to load it for transport to where the unit was needed.

This unit was mobilized to serve in Wulai in August 2015 in the wake of Typhoon Soudelor, as described at the top of this article. After the storm, large numbers of people rushed to Wulai to help local residents clean up their homes and communities. Since running water was still cut off, the influx of volunteers made the water supply even more of a problem. In seven days, the purifier produced enough drinking water to fill 20,000 600-milliliter water bottles (a total of 3,170 gallons), greatly alleviating the problem. Though that was far below its capacity, the latest Tzu Chi water purifier proved to be a potent tool for disaster relief missions.

The water heater provides boiling water to be added to dehydrated rice in food containers, like this one, to make cooked rice.   



All Terrain Vehicle


Unique features

 Hauls heavy payloads over rough terrain yet maneuvers well in narrow alleyways.


When Typhoon Soudelor hit Taiwan in August 2015, Wulai, in the northern part of the island, was flooded and left without tap water. In response, Tzu Chi sent its mobile water purifier to convert raw stream water into potable water for local residents and for people who had rushed to the area to help clean up.

The purifier, parked on the basketball court of a boy scout campground, pumped out treated water into ten-liter (2.64-gallon) containers. Volunteer Yan Sheng-yan (嚴聖炎) put about 50 of the containers into his sedan—in the trunk, rear seat, front seat, wherever space was available. Each container of water weighed ten kilograms (22 pounds), so his car had to carry a payload of around 1,100 pounds as it navigated muddy, rugged mountain roads to deliver the precious cargo to the water distribution station.

Yan made trip after trip back and forth, picking up more water and delivering it to those who needed it. Driving the vehicle on such rough roads back and forth took a heavy toll on his car. When the work was finally done, the heavy loads and bad roads had quite thoroughly ruined the undercarriage and suspension of his sedan. In the end, it cost him an arm and a leg to repair the vehicle—it was an import.

This costly experience taught Yan that a passenger car or even a regular-duty truck, no matter how well built, was not suitable for heavy work on bumpy roads or hilly terrain. They also would not work well in narrow alleyways, where Tzu Chi volunteers often spent long hours or days in their effort to clean up flooded homes and neighborhoods, manually carrying heavy buckets of mud or debris or passing them along lines of people to central collection locations.

Yan wanted to find a more suitable vehicle with which volunteers could conduct disaster relief work more efficiently and productively. His research led him to conclude that an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) would be the tool for the job. He began looking for a manufacturer that would produce what he needed. He looked far and wide. In October 2015, he met Chen Qing-zhang (陳慶漳) at a farm equipment trade show in Yunlin, southern Taiwan.

Chen’s company had made four ATVs for another customer, who had in turn donated them to a search and rescue organization. Those vehicles were all-wheel-drive six-wheelers. Tzu Chi’s order, however, was for rear-wheel-drive four-wheelers. The foundation is after all not a search and rescue organization, and it has different needs.

However, the Tzu Chi Foundation had other specific needs for its ATVs that required customization. For example, an engine with a displacement of 272cc (18 horsepower) was chosen to replace the standard 150cc engine. The extra horsepower was needed to boost the vehicle’s ability to surmount steep inclines. Tzu Chi volunteers had test-driven an ATV with a 150cc engine and found that it couldn’t climb up some steeper slopes, so they asked the manufacturer to switch to the larger engine.

The safety and load capacity of the ATVs were also strengthened, and the maximum load was upgraded to 240 kilograms (529 pounds), sufficient for carrying boxed meals and drinking water for 200 people. Volunteers could then serve a small village in the mountains in one trip.

Since the vehicle had to carry heavy loads, and to ensure that parking on a slope wouldn’t pose a problem, the ATV was equipped with a mechanical parking brake. Manually operated by a lever and cable that engaged the brake mechanism, this parking brake would cost the vehicle no extra energy.

The parts used in the ATV were all up to high standards. Even the rearview mirrors were certified to meet EU safety standards.

Speed was not a primary concern for Tzu Chi ATVs, since they were meant to transport supplies on uneven terrain, but safety concerns were paramount. For example, Yan asked Chen’s company to lower the gear ratio from 1:3 to 1:5, meaning that the engine output shaft rotates five times to turn the rear wheel one revolution. This traded the vehicle’s speed for a higher torque (rotational force), thus improving its stability and allowing it to better handle rough terrain.

Yan Sheng-yan on an ATV custom-made for Tzu Chi.


Efficient delivery of food…

A Tzu Chi disaster relief mission often includes the preparation and delivery of hot food in individual meal boxes to victims. In the old days, a 3.5-ton truck would deliver perhaps a thousand boxed meals to people in five or six communities in one trip. In a best-case scenario, with open and undamaged roads, it would still take quite some time for the truck to cover all six villages. By the time the delivery crew reached the end of their route, the recipients might be starving. Naturally, the food would be cold as well.

Not every day was a “best-case scenario” either. There were occasions where the roads were congested or peppered with obstacles like debris or potholes, or worse the truck would break down in the middle of the road. All this meant delays in putting the food in the hands of hungry people.

Because that approach to meal delivery wasn’t optimal, Yan wanted to do better. His solution was to send out several ATVs at the same time. When a meal delivery mission was needed, several of those off-highway vehicles could be transported via trucks to a central location where they would be loaded with boxed meals and go on their separate routes at the same time. If five ATVs were sent out, they could deliver to five villages at the same time. A boxed meal weighed about 400 to 500 grams (0.9 to 1.1 pound), so an ATV could haul 400 meals to a village in one trip. Five ATVs could deliver 2,000 meals to five villages at the same time. This decreased the time needed for the food to reach the recipients. It also avoided the risk of putting all the eggs in a single basket—when one ATV broke down or was stopped by a damaged road, the other ATVs could still carry out their missions.

Men work on an assembly line at Chen Qing-zhang’s factory.


…Or junk and mud

Just as the ATVs would deliver food to disaster victims, they could also take undesirable things away from them.

Volunteers often helped flood victims clean up their homes and neighborhoods. This invariably involved taking damaged items or mud out of a house to a central collection site. A small bucketful of mud could easily weigh ten kilograms (22 pounds). To handle such heavy things by hand over an extended time was hard work. With an ATV at the cleanup site, volunteers could simply take debris or mud out of a house and dump their heavy loads into the vehicle parked just outside. The ATV, good at navigating narrow alleyways, would do the hard work of taking it all to the central collection site. Once there, a volunteer just needed to open the tailgate and gently use a shovel to help things slide off the bed.

But why would things just slide easily out of the truck bed? That feature too was by design. The bed of the vehicle was adjustable: It could be laid flat to carry meal boxes, but when the ATV worked in cleanups, the bed could be raised so that it sloped down towards the rear end. This made easy work of unloading it.

The ATV was also designed to navigate water  up to 45 centimeters (17.7 inches) deep. This made the vehicle a more effective tool. Volunteer Wang Shou-rong (王壽榮) lauded this capability because he once had to ride a farm tractor provided by a neighborhood head to cross a flooded area to deliver hot meals to disaster victims.

Chen Qing-zhang made the ATV exactly to Yan’s specifications. It was rigorously tested, such as being overloaded, driven on steep slopes, parked there, and maneuvered on very rough surfaces. When Tzu Chi volunteers spotted a problem during these tests, they pointed it out and Chen’s team fixed it. The vehicle eventually satisfied all requirements, and an ideal vehicle for Tzu Chi came into being.

Tzu Chi ATVs participate in an exercise at a disaster preparedness camp in early 2017.






On January 25, 2017, Chen donated the six custom-made ATVs to Tzu Chi.

“These vehicles are intended for disaster relief missions, but I pray that we will never have any occasion to use them,” he remarked at the hand-over ceremony.

The customized ATV is one more valuable tool in Tzu Chi’s disaster relief toolkit.

November 2017