Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 8 News List

Lessons learned from Mindulle

By Chia Yee-ping賈儀平

Tropical Storm Mindulle brought destruction to the crops, housing and power supplies in central and southern Taiwan with heavy rain, landslides and floods. It also resulted in tragedy to the families of those killed. Given that Taiwan is known to be prone to natural disasters, is the government really so powerless in averting these kinds of catastrophes?

The island of Taiwan was thrown up as a result of tectonic plate movements. Typhoons and heavy rains have, over the course of the centuries, taken their toll, causing land and mud slides in mountainous areas. Flood waters carried rock and debris down to lower areas, creating what is now the western coastal plain in a process that has taken millennia. This means that the severe geological changes taking place in Taiwan are the results of natural phenomena.

In recent decades there has been a considerable increase in the island's population, and economic growth has required people to move to once uninhabited land, settling in areas around rivers or in the mountains. This activity has increased the rate of geological changes, precipitating nightmarish natural disasters.

The lessons learned eight years ago from Typhoon Herb, which caused widespread flooding and landslides throughout Taiwan, have gradually faded from peoples' memories. And just like Typhoon Herb, Mindulle and the July 2 disaster it caused has taught us again the importance of respecting the natural environment on which we rely for our existence.

In fact, following Typhoon Herb and the 921 Earthquake, the government and public set about reconstruction according to their needs -- continuing to develop further into the mountains and, without a thought for the environment, cut service roads straight to the highest areas catering to crop land all over the mountains. This activity could be the prelude to yet another natural disaster.

Over the years the government has had reservoirs and dams built upstream to manage water supplies and erected check dams to prevent mudslides. Downstream the populace has been using sand and gravel for such purposes, upsetting the natural supply of this material deposited in rivers and altering the inherent balance of the river beds. It is no wonder that river buttresses are easily ripped away during floods and infrastructure along river banks are destroyed. The long-term reduction of sand and gravel deposits in estuaries has increased the level of erosion on the west coast as the coastline continues to contract.

It is a well-known fact that the long term syphoning of subterranean water by fish farms has caused the southwest coastal region to subside to below sea level, necessitating the construction of dykes and embankments and causing serious land conservation problems.

Despite the fact that everything appeared to have returned to normal in a matter of days, the floodwaters are seeping deep down into the ground, replacing the syphoned water and salinating the ground water. As a result, future generations will not find it economically viable to use subterranean water supplies.

It usually takes a natural disaster before people realize how important it is to respect the land we live on and the principles of nature. It brings to mind the two-month flooding of the Mississippi River in the US in 1993, where the waters broke the embankments, causing much distress to the surrounding populace, after which time there was a revision in attitudes towards the marshlands and the river itself.

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