On Wednesday and Thursday last week, Typhoon Saola swept across the northeastern part of Taiwan, bringing strong winds and heavy rain that swelled rivers and wreaked havoc in mountain areas. There were scenes of devastation everywhere, and Taiwan suffered heavy losses from the storm. Newspaper reports estimate losses in the farming sector to be in excess of NT$1 billion (US$33.4 million).
In the three-way struggle between environment, development and survival, what solutions are available for Taiwan? Is there anything we can do to make natural disasters a little less terrifying? Let us consider some issues about land use and development in Taiwan — maybe some solutions can be drawn from them.
Many people have had the experience of traveling from Taipei to Kaohsiung on the high-speed railway, a journey that takes about an hour-and-a-half.Along the way, passengers can clearly observe the typical pattern of development in Taiwan, with industrial zones scattered among farmland, residential areas mixed in with industrial zones, and commercial activities occurring in residential areas. These sights portray a vivid impression of the nation’s vitality, and also bear witness to the changing patterns of land use that have accompanied Taiwan’s economic development over several decades.
In less than a century, Taiwan has gone first from an agricultural society to an industrial one, and then to a commercial one, and now it is moving toward a society rooted in knowledge-based services. Meanwhile, it faces the pressures of global climate change and globalization. The burden of these changes has long been more than this land can bear.
Only by repeatedly adjusting land policies, artificially improving the natural conditions and finding scientific and technical fixes to new problems have we been able to make the long-suffering land capable of supporting people’s aspirations and the state’s development plans.
In recent years, people have, thankfully, become more aware of environmental issues, and struggles between economic interests and ecological concerns are often present.
These situations, in which development and environmental protection are in conflict, are in fact the last battle that will decide whether Taiwan’s land can continue to support life and nurture civilization.
It was in agriculture that Taiwan scored its earliest economic successes. Then came industrialization. The 10 Major Construction Projects of the 1970s led the way for the development of large-scale industries, petrochemicals, export-processing zones and so forth. These developments allowed the nation to leap forward and take its place among the four Asian Tiger economies. However, in those days people did not have a good understanding of the need to protect the environment and control pollution. As a result, these great economic advances have regrettably brought in their wake environmental damage that we have still not been able to fix.
Another aspect to consider is that Taiwan has long been accustomed to building towns in a way that mixes housing and commerce in the same urban zones. This kind of urban planning allows commercial areas to be used for housing, and residential areas to be used for commercial activities. In fact even industrial zones can be used for housing. This pattern is an expression of Taiwan’s unique flexibility and resilience. It is these longstanding patterns of land use that give people the impression that our government is not very good at managing things, and maybe there is also an element of populism involved.