Wed, Sep 07, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Act now or lose water resources

By Liu Chung-ming 柳中明

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.

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