Mon, Jul 21, 2008 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL: Money alone won’t prevent floods

Tropical Storm Kalmaegi skirted the northern parts of Taiwan, but that was enough to wreak disaster in the center and south of the country, causing severe flooding, killing 18 and leaving seven others missing. The government has budgeted more than NT$140 billion (US$4.6 billion) for flood-control projects in the past few years, yet this latest disaster makes it abundantly clear that flood-control policies have failed abysmally.

The rainfall brought by Kalmaegi reached frightening proportions, taking forecasters by surprise with more than 1m of rain in central and southern parts of the country. But this should have been nothing new. Heavy rain has caused flooding nationwide time and time again. Could this situation have been avoided if weather forecasts had been accurate? Of course not, because the problem is that flood-control efforts have failed.

The government has spent a huge amount of time and money on flood prevention, including a large portion of a NT$500 billion investment plan launched by the former government. During his stint as premier, Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) proposed flood control legislation and an eight-year flood-control budget of NT$80 billion. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) ridiculed both the legislation and the budget, accusing Hsieh of wanting to use the funds to expand grassroots support and then saying a special budget was inappropriate. KMT lawmakers blocked the budget for more than a year. In the end, however, the budget was passed in January 2006, in its third reading, after being boosted to NT$116 billion.

However, not a single project was completed in the first year of the plan. Since the budget was passed, at least NT$70 billion to NT$80 billion has been spent on flood prevention, most of it in Yunlin, Chiayi and Nantou counties, the three hardest hit by Kalmaegi.

The government’s biggest misconception about flood prevention is that spending a bit of extra money on construction projects will prevent flooding, without any concept of waterway dredging and maintenance. Both the former government’s five-year, NT$80 billion plan and the present government’s plan to expand domestic demand are emergency proposals made on the spur of the moment for political considerations. Local governments and ministries pulled together a spending plan in a few days. Such plans are simply band-aids and do not take the overall situation into account.

Projects are subcontracted but work is not supervised. Inferior work and inadequate construction plans set the stage for future disasters. The rains brought by Kalmaegi caused so much damage because many canals and ditches were blocked while uncontrolled construction had destroyed many waterways. The lack of properly trained and equipped rescue personnel also contributed to the disaster. Improving such shortcomings must be a part of the government’s flood-control planning.

Kalmaegi was a warning that flood prevention requires more than money; it takes commitment and time. Contracting out construction projects may be an effective means to win voter support, but once a flood disaster hits, that support, together with public trust, will all but collapse.

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