Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Economy, natural disasters linked

By Gloria Hsu徐光蓉

The winds and heavy rains brought by Tropical Storm Mindulle buffeted the central and southern regions of Taiwan for three days. Newspaper headlines reporting on the storm borrowed the title of the recent Hollywood special effects movie The Day After Tomorrow, with the implied question of how sure we are of the future.

Many people reacted in the familiar way of saying natural disasters are nature's revenge; that it is a result of climatic change. In other words, it is tantamount to the will of the gods, and we should thus just sit back and take it. In fact, there are ways to reduce the incidence of natural disasters.

Human activities have already started to have an influence on meteorological phenomena, and the issue of climatic change has consequently become a hot topic. At present, scientists cannot confirm which unusual weather patterns have resulted from human activity, or indeed whether this activity constitutes a factor at all. Nevertheless, a survey initiated by an international insurance company 10 years ago showed a dramatic rise in the amount of property damage incurred as a result of natural disasters throughout the world since the beginning of the 1990s. In 1998 alone the damage wrought by such disasters was 20 percent or 30 percent higher than for all of the 1980s. There are two possible reasons for this rapid increase in the damage done by natural calamities: the increase in frequency and intensity of severe weather conditions, and the fact that population increases are pushing more and more people to expand their economic activities into "dangerous" areas.

We can therefore approach the problem from two levels. Firstly, scientists will have to answer the question of whether severe weather phenomena are indeed increasing in frequency and degree; and governments will have to induce people to move away from dangerous areas. Scientific research is very time-consuming. It will take a decade or two before the implications of evidence that meteorologists are only now starting to collect can be used to accurately predict the degree of future climatic change, owing to the sheer number of factors that can influence the weather.

Just because science is not yet forthcoming with solid predictions does not mean that governments can sit back and watch their citizens fall victim to disasters. People migrate into the mountains or into water drainage areas to live there or cultivate the land, using their own resources and gleaning their own profits. The same is true for large enterprises, which have often sought to reduce the size of isolation moats for industrial areas and fish farms, or discard hazardous waste on the quiet.

Neither the individuals or companies ever stop to think about the negative consequences of their behavior: the dangers posed to the general public and their own families living downstream from their pollution of water sources in the mountains; the effect of pollutants on the health of workers and the public; or the flooding caused by reducing the size of isolation moats. In many cases it is not always possible to immediately ascribe responsibility when the problem first surfaces, with the result that the government must use taxpayers' money to remedy the situation.

Naturally, in the majority of cases inappropriate development is not born of any malicious intent. However, if such conduct is allowed to be repeated again and again, this could be seen as tacit encouragement for other individuals or businesses to follow suit, creating what we might call a moral hazard. If nothing is done about the situation in good time, we will see more and more inappropriate development, which will increase pressure on the government's other budgetary obligations. If the majority of the public agree and the government continues to bail out offenders, then this procedure will not be questioned, and the government will raise taxes or require people to bear the cost of flood insurance. If they do not agree, the government will need to take a more active approach to prevent risky development projects, or halt them in their early stages.

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