Situated on the estuary of the Mississippi River, New Orleans is far more than a charming city, it is also the birthplace of jazz. The city has now been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, which has left 80 percent of it submerged in floodwaters. It is going to take more than three months before the water can be pumped out and local residents can return to their filthy and damaged homes.
New Orleans will never be the same, since some parts of the city will remain underwater, and many residents have decided to leave the city. There is much nostalgia for the destroyed city, and for the hopes and dreams of hundreds of thousands of people.
With 70 percent of the city below sea level and surrounded by water on three sides, New Orleans mainly relies on levees, drainage and a huge pumping system to prevent flooding. While it was expected that water washing over the levees and from the hurricane's rains would accumulate in the bowl-like city, as long as the pumps continued to operate, the city could be saved. That was why 20 percent of the inhabitants decided not to leave their homes.
But Hurricane Katrina was the long-predicted super-storm, and once the levees gave way, huge quantities of water poured into the city. All efforts to stop it were in vain, and the belief that "man will triumph over nature" was proved wrong.
Natural catastrophes occur frequently all over the globe and most of the world's population are concentrated in cities, many of which are next to the lower reaches of rivers and lakes, or on the coast. In addition, water and soil conservation programs in the upper reaches of rivers are often badly implemented, and mountain slopes have been over-exploited. Low-lying areas are pumping too much groundwater, causing the strata to sink and drainage systems to silt up. As a result, flooding caused by heavy rainfall has become nothing unusual, while levees and pumping stations have become a part of many urban landscapes.
Taiwan, a densely populated island, always faces disasters when it rains and often experiences flooding when typhoons hit. The locations of these disasters may change, but their frequency has increased.
Moreover, other parts of the world face similar situations. Last week, the downpour across Central Europe and Eastern Europe was so disastrous that nations in the region suffered huge losses.
Cities are not formed overnight, and when they become the weakest point in the face of natural disasters, what can we do to reduce risks in the short term?
It is obvious that continued economic growth will increase demand for natural resources. At the same time, the ability to respond to disasters is declining as a result of the longstanding belief that infrastructure is able to overcome anything. This has often led to negligence in situations where important choices have to be made.
One example is New Orleans, which was founded almost 300 years ago. With the city's increased population, and the development of business and industry, the city is no longer suitable for a population of 480,000, and parts of it should have long ago been abandoned and converted into areas dedicated to flood diversion. Human obstinateness, however, means that we always wait for disaster to strike before realizing where the critical point is; the disaster is the price we pay for passing the critical point.
The most important task of disaster prevention is to avoid disaster. The government should prioritize permanent evacuation and put an end to the development of areas along fault lines, landslide zones, land subsidence areas, and places where flooding is frequent. Instead, such areas should be reforested and soil and water conservation should be improved.
The next step should be to build canals and make use of rivers to divert water that cannot be absorbed by the mountains and forests into the sea, to avoid the water breaching embankments and flooding roads and bridges.
Moreover, people who live in areas that rely heavily on levees or pumping facilities should ensure these facilities are kept in good condition, and should always be on the alert, for inattention will only lead to lead to lifelong regret.
Although none of these measures can be completed quickly, ignoring them over the longer term will clearly cause disasters to worsen and losses to increase.
Another example is the bad water quality in the lower reaches of the Shihmen Reservoir, which is a result of over-development along the upper reaches of the reservoir.
The problem has built up as a result of long-term neglect. A solution would be to immediately halt fruit farming on the slopes around the reservoir, and then plant trees and implement soil and water conservation measures.
Only by redefining the reservoir's functions and improving facilities to remove and filter out sand can the drinking water problem be resolved. These are long-term measures that cannot be immediately implemented. Medium-term solutions such as a connection to the Feitsui Reservoir in Taipei County, therefore require urgent attention.
But the Shihmen Reservoir cannot be abandoned. This is why, in the short term, the Cabinet and the Taoyuan County Government should improve control over development along the upper reaches of the reservoir and propose a five to 10-year plan for restoring the area -- by decreasing development, as well as restricting water distribution, electricity production and access to the mountain area, while pushing forward a reforestation program.
Under the program, the area under development must decline from year to year, while the area set aside for reforestation must increase on a yearly basis.
The plan to save the Shihmen Reservoir may affect Taoyuan County's plans to double tourism, but New Orleans' most important resource was tourism, and the effort to maintain that tourism has now led to the destruction of the whole city. If Taoyuan County wants to wait until the critical point has been passed -- that is, the moment when there is no more drinking water -- before they deal with over-development in the upper reaches of the Shihmen Reservoir, it will already be too late.
Liu Chung-ming is the director of the Global Change Research Center at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Daniel Cheng
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