During the rainy season this year, average rainfall caused floods from Keelung in the north to Hengchun and Kenting in the south. Why? The largest daily rainfall this season was about 400mm. This is not very much when compared to the 2,000mm that fell in one day on Alishan during Typhoon Herb in 1996, the 1,700mm in one day in Hsitou during Typhoon Toraji in 2001, the 1,600mm in one day in Taipei's Huoshaoliao during Typhoon Nari in 2003 or the 1,200mm at Shihmen in one day during Typhoon Aere last year.
Given the standard of Taiwan's river dredging, water drainage and metropolitan rainwater sewerage, daily precipitation of 600mm or less should not lead to floods, yet it does. Why? This issue must be approached from a policy perspective.
Prior to 2001, the Taiwan Provincial Government Water Resources Department (台灣省政府水利處) had a special budget of NT$8 billion (US$254.7 million) to subsidize, assist and provide technical guidance to local governments to maintain, improve and manage water resources, and to force them to prioritize flood prevention measures for rivers and water drainage.
Beginning in 2002, the government amended the Law Governing the Allocation of Government Revenues and Expenditures (
The responsibility for local water drainage maintenance and improvements was handed to local government leaders, who now allocate funds from subsidies for general use. Because hydraulic engineering projects are part of the infrastructure and their effects aren't normally noticed, they aren't prioritized by local governments.
After the earlier NT$8 billion budget was taken over by the government in 2003, the total water resource maintenance and improvement budget for all 23 counties and cities around Taiwan only amounted to NT$1 billion. Three counties and cities didn't even get a single cent. When the Water Resources Department lost its right to allocate financial subsidies, it also lost its influence over local governments. Although the department continued to remind local governments to give priority to hydraulic engineering projects, they didn't listen. One look at water drainage facilities -- whether in urban areas or in the countryside -- and one can see how one failed policy has brought about a negative effect in only three years. Many are dilapidated, covered with shrubbery, and plugged up by waste and mud. The only reason for this is that the effects of hydraulic engineering projects are not normally seen, and therefore bring no votes.
What has happened to hydraulic engineering in Taiwan over the last five years? A single figure can help us understand: In 2000, the Taiwan Provincial Government Water Resource Department had a budget of NT$60 billion. This year, the annual budget for the Water Resources Agency (
But for five years, the government has not completed any of the existing water resource development plans, and this will lead to serious water shortages. From the perspective of flood prevention, apart from the Keelung River dredging project, which is an extension of earlier plans, the disaster prevention system -- including river dredging, water drainage improvements and flood prevention -- has deteriorated seriously as a result of a shortage of funds, unclear definition of duties and responsibilities, and a lack of respect for expertise.
The Cabinet has recently proposed allocating NT$80 billion over eight years for a water drainage improvement program. This shows that the government has discovered the problems with existing policies and is willing to prioritize hydraulic engineering projects, which is good. But a closer look at the program reveals that it is restricted to Changhua, Yunlin, Chiai, Nantou, Kaohsiung, Pingtung, Ilan and Taipei counties. Are these the only places with water drainage problems? Or is it that their leaders paid little attention to the improvement of water drainage earlier and are now in a rush to make up for those shortcomings?
Over the past few years, we have also seen many instances of funds aimed at disaster reconstruction or expanding domestic consumption being used to directly assist counties, cities and townships. But the lack of professional planning for these projects, as well as sloppy design, inferior quality of work, and the lack of supervisory and control mechanisms has been disheartening.
The eight-year, NT$80 billion plan should therefore be welcomed and supported, but with the following suggestions:
First, it should not be restricted to certain places, and the money should be spent where there is an urgent need.
Second, water drainage improvements should first be subject to systematic planning and a comprehensive plan should be proposed. The plan should also be subject to a strict professional evaluation, and responsibilities and duties should be unified and given to the Water Resources Agency -- which should supervise implementation to avoid any unnecessary political intervention.
Third, the eight-year plan should comply with the land restoration and conservation implementation plan (
Fourth, a strict supervisory mechanism to provide implementation and quality controls should be created. Each part of a project must be correctly carried out to guarantee that the goal to improve water drainage is achieved. Bad planning, sloppy design and inferior work should be severely punished.
Wu Hsain-hsion is a former deputy chairman of the Water Resources Agency and the current chairman of the National Association of Hydraulic Engineer Unions.
Translated by Perry Svensson
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