Fri, Mar 21, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Two rivers, two mayors and a very clear choice

By Matthew Lien

The recent election of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was attributed in part to his restoration of a river running through Seoul. When Lee was elected mayor of Seoul in 2001, one of his key campaign promises was to remove the freeway covering the Cheonggyecheon River and to restore the waterway as a symbol of the city's beauty.

This caused me to reflect on Taiwan's presidential election and the first time I met Kaohsiung environmental activists and academics involved in the clean-up of the Kaoping River.

In 1999, I was appointed "Ambassador to the Aboriginal Cultures of the Kaoping River" by the Kaohsiung County Government and was given a tour of the most beautiful and most polluted sections of the river. I was also shown what efforts were being made to improve it and Kaohsiung City's Love River.

Years later, the results are impressive and the credit must go partly to the commitment of Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), who was at the time mayor of Kaohsiung.

Both of these rivers are widely known success stories, illustrating the importance of environmentalism and community development.

By contrast, I was invited several years ago by the Taipei City Government when Chinese Nationalist Party presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was mayor to tour the Tamsui River. The Department of Cultural Affairs director at the time, Lung Ying-tai (龍應台), and I took a one-hour tour of the river. Infamous for its severe pollution, a stench rose from the water as we climbed into small boats.

Accompanied by reporters, we saw dead pigs float by in the water, which can fairly be described as toxic. This was clearly an atrocity against the environment and allowing it to continue unchecked was a grievous failure of government at all levels.

Lung asked for my recommendations, which I enthusiastically provided based on my river conservation work in Canada with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Yukon Conservation Society and Friends of Yukon Rivers.

I described in detail an annual river festival that should be held on the banks of the Tamsui River, featuring original music and works by local artists portraying their impressions of the river. A CD and a coffee-table book could be published annually to help fund the festival and educate more people about the issue.

I also suggested that academics and water specialists be involved in the festival, updating the public on the pollution and its causes and documenting any changes in water quality.

They would also suggest which government departments should take responsibility for enforcing laws that penalize offenders and correct the problem. They could issue "report cards" to those departments.

I felt this would bring media attention, increase government accountability and inspire government action.

Lung supported my proposals and we presented the plan to the media.

Years later, the Tamsui River remains one of the most polluted in the country. All the talk of improvements seem to have been nothing more than a media exercise. It looked great on TV, but it resulted in little or nothing being done by Ma's administration.

As Taiwan goes to the polls, I can't help but recall my personal experiences with the two candidates and the adage: "By their fruits will you know them."

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