Thu, Jul 15, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Disaster prevention must improve

By Jack Cheng鄭皆達

The heavy rains brought by Tropical Storm Mindulle have wreaked havoc in the central and south parts of the country, especially Nantou and Taichung counties.

Flooding and mudslides have destroyed homes and bridges, exacting a heavy toll in dead and injured. There has been much discussion as to the causes, and also much criticism and blame directed at the government and disaster relief agencies for their inefficiency in dealing with the situation.

Most of the damage brought by Mindulle was due to flooding, although there was also some damage caused by mudslides and landslides. The southwest air flow brought torrential rain to central and southern Taiwan, and in a number of locations the accumulated rainfall was more than double that of Typhoon Toraji. This level of rainfall is estimated to occur about once every 200 years. Mountainous areas are extremely fragile and the soil cover there is shallow. This situation was aggravated by the 921 Earthquake, which not only caused many landslides in the area, but also weakened the rock and earth formations. That there would be massive flooding and mudslides could have been predicted, and academics and members of the public have pointed out that it was the volume of rainfall that was primarily responsible for the damage.

But if we look at the situation more closely, inappropriate use of hillsides and drainage areas, unregulated land clearance, building of structures and roads and moving into areas prone to landslides and flooding have increased the frequency and damage caused by these natural disasters. The unregulated use and misuse of land is a problem that goes back a long way and its causes are complex. To strictly regulate land use will meet with considerable resistance from the public and from the legislature, and is likely to be a difficult process. Natural conditions in Taiwan are not good and it is impossible to fully prevent flooding and landslides. But if we consider the problem as a whole and adopt comprehensive policies to deal with the many aspects of the problem, it might be possible to reduce the damage and the frequency of these incidents.

Over the years, the government has built numerous dykes, levees, dams, retaining walls and other flood-prevention and soil conservation structures. In the face of small or medium-scale flooding or landslides, these can prevent or decrease damage. But in the face of events such as Typhoon Herb and Toraji and now Mindulle, which brought massive rainfall, they are largely ineffective. We should now make a practical assessment of the effectiveness and necessity of these structures. If we really want to prevent such disasters in the future, we should work through a national system of planning, regulations and promotion to rationalize the use of land.

Reforestation is the best way of achieving the preservation of precious topsoil, protecting slopes, managing water and purifying water. In sloping land with insufficient coverage, reforestation can ensure water and soil conservation.

In the face of massive rain, no efforts are wholly adequate to prevent all damage, and often it is best simply to evacuate in the face of this threat. Areas that are likely to be seriously affected by torrential rains should be evacuated, and the establishment of temporary disaster-relief preparations are of the greatest importance. For those people living in disaster-prone areas, the government should also offer assistance in making permanent arrangements to leave the area. Disaster prevention requires the whole-hearted cooperation of the public, so education and team training should also be incorporated into such planning.

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