Typhoon Soudelor caused a manifold increase in the turbidity of Taipei’s water supply. Residents flocked to stores to buy bottled water and the Taipei City Government was heavily criticized for its handling of the situation, as it is responsible for the management of catchment areas, including the Feitsui Reservoir.
Former Taipei mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) called on Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to look into the matter. Ko said the muddy water came from the Nanshih River (南勢溪), and that the central government should check the river upstream, while the Forestry Bureau has said the problem was caused by a road collapse. The Ministry of Economic Affairs blamed the city government for its decision to release muddy water into the water treatment plant.
The mud-slinging between the local and central governments did little more than make things more murky. The priority should be to ascertain the source and to identify the culprit: Only then can a permanent solution be found. Next, the response measures must be analyzed, so the operating procedure can be changed in anticipation of future weather events.
The Feitsui Reservoir takes water from the Beishih River (北勢溪), not the Nanshih River. Aerial photographs show the Beishih catchment area is fine, and that there are no serious issues with the Feitsui Reservoir. It is only at the Gueishan (龜山) stretch of Sinwu Road, downstream from where the two rivers converge to become the Sindian River (新店溪), that their waters enter the Chihtan Purification Plant. It follows that the water that enters the reservoir from the Beishih River is not the problem: It was the Nanshih River that brought the muddy water into the plant.
Chihtan cannot handle water that muddy. The problem is entirely sourced in the upper Nanshih River and, irrespective of whether the mud came from a landslide along the Dongjhakong River (東札孔溪) or from the collapse of Sinzeng Road, the ministry or the bureau should come up with a solution.
Government officials say land maintenance is being conducted along the Nanshih River, but in this case the typhoon was too strong. While partly true, it also shows the government’s efforts fall far short of holding off nature’s destructive power.
Even when the muddy water flowed into the purification plant, there was still the option of closing the flues to prevent the water from getting into city supplies, although this would have meant cutting off the supply for several days. The choice between cutting the water supply and allowing muddy water into the supply was a major decision, and Deputy Taipei Mayor Teng Chia-chi (鄧家基) confirmed that the city government chose the latter. When the typhoon had passed, it had to accept residents’ complaints that they were supplied with muddy water, had to buy bottled water and had to clean water tanks.
The Taipei City Government needs to amend its standard operating procedure. Before a weather event such as this typhoon, it should remind the public to stock up on water, so that if the water turbidity exceeds recommended levels, the purification plants can be shut down and the water supply cut off. When the water clears, the supply can come back on. It is just that in a typhoon’s aftermath, when people want to clean things up, if there is suddenly no clean water, it is no surprise that they get angry. Here it came down to choosing the lesser of two evils.
The war of words over this issue demonstrates that even in public policy debates, political agendas get in the way of different levels of government, government departments and political parties. Nobody is interested in finding the facts; it is all about shirking responsibility and pointing the finger of blame. This attitude does not help prepare the nation for the next weather event or improve disaster response procedures. This is the greatest disaster that the public faces.
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