Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Disaster prevention policy needs retooling

By Chen Hsin-hsiung 陳信雄

Central and southern Taiwan were stripped bare by Tropical Storm Mindulle, leaving areas heavily affected by floods and landslides.

Government authorities have implemented an unprecedented range of bridge closures in the area for safety reasons. The recent storm has led to the loss of life not seen since the 921 earthquake in 1999 and Typhoon Toraji in the summer of 2001.

Mindulle has tested the reconstruction that followed these disasters, and is in a way nature's way of signing off on these projects.

Areas such as Shenmu and Tungfu villages near the Chenyoulan River of Nantou County, as well as Tungshih and Fengyuan townships of Taichung County, which experienced the most devastating landslides, were the same regions struck by the 921 earthquake. Mioli, Chunghwa, Chiayi, Yunlin, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung were hit by record-breaking torrential downpours brought by Mindulle, which inflicted causalities second only to the kind of flooding that hit the island on Aug. 7, 1959.

All of these disasters are at least in part the result of over 50 years of merciless man-made environmental damage and poor disaster prevention plans. Commercial farming continues to encroach on our forests; the expansion of betel palm fields, in particular, severely upsets the local ecosystem. The damage done in Hualien has been a lesson we as a country should learn from.

In the reconstruction that followed the 921 earthquake, the government committed itself to using "eco-technology." Without gaining a deep understanding of this technology, the government allowed it to become the only aspect of its reconstruction program. The destruction in Nantou and Tungshih is the direct result of the decades-long deforestation in this country, not to mention the loss of homeostasis in our ecosystem. How to assess nature's need for rest, understanding the limitations imposed by Taiwan's natural environment, and learning how best to develop and exploit these resources, is the key to preserving ecological homeostasis.

Development policies based on economic motivations (rather than ecological ones) can only increase the number of disaster-affected areas and end up with more severe disasters. If we do only reflect on successes of the post-921 earthquake rehabilitation projects, but ignore the unprecedented torrential rains brought by Mindulle -- with many months left in the typhoon season -- how can we possibly prevent another calamity?

The so-called "eco-technology" operating nowadays is just simply a superficial amelioration through the planting of grass and trees over riverbeds and near-collapsing hillsides. The technology may even increase flooding. By making "eco-technology" the main thrust of disaster reconstruction is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. "Eco-technology" is, indeed, the main culprit in the formation and acceleration of flooding disasters.

Government authorities should review their backward environmental policies which played a role in Nantou County and Tungshih and Fengyuan townships' recent agonies. By blindly constructing comb dams, we allow the frightening prospect of a downward rush of rocks and mud near the densely populated recreational upriver areas.

We must not allow "eco-technology" to progress uncontrollably. While it is ostentatious, it is of no use in disaster prevention.

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