Humans are main cause of disasters

By Jeff Chen 陳昌宏  / 

Wed, Oct 14, 2009 - Page 8

Floods brought by Typhoon Morakot in August inflicted unprecedented damage on the nation.

Taiwan, which is on the typhoon frontline and located in a seismic zone, cannot avoid such periodic damage.

The government and civil organizations have repeatedly collaborated on disaster rescue and relief efforts.

Senior government officials have also promised to finish post-disaster reconstruction as soon as possible.

However, I cannot help but ask: After survivors have been rescued and houses reconstructed, who will save the planet?

Many mountain villages were washed away by landslides in the worst-hit areas in Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties. Was the tremendous rainfall the only cause of those landslides?

If we look at the Central Weather Bureau’s typhoon archives for the past 100 years, we find that 666 typhoons hit Taiwan between 1897 and 1996, nearly a third of which brought rainfall of more than 2,000mm.

Although less than a quarter of these typhoons caused great damage, they were concentrated in the post-1990 period. What do these numbers tell us?

First, between six and seven typhoons on average hit Taiwan every year, but not all of them wreak havoc on the nation.

Sometimes typhoons may even alleviate a drought, but such fortune is scarce and unpredictable.

Taiwan cannot, however, change the fact that it will be hit by typhoons.

Second, typhoons are bound to bring strong winds and heavy rain, but in recent years, rains have become fiercer than winds and caused more damage.

Taiwan’s topology is characterized by towering mountains, with 21 major rivers covering a drainage area of 9,500km² — 29.4 percent of the nation’s total area.

When torrential rain pours down on these rivers, flash floods sweep toward the lower reaches at extremely high speeds.

Excessive forest development aggravates soil erosion problems.

Although natural disasters are inevitable, man-made calamities can be mitigated.

Soil and water conservation is undoubtedly of great importance, yet the authorities seem to never take it seriously.

Because heavy rainfalls wears away loose soil, sturdy trees are needed to hold the soil together. Instead, shallow-rooted betel nut trees and vegetables are planted on hillsides.

Deciding between survival for the moment and sustainable development has always presented humanity with a Catch 22.

With nature retaliating, how can people still be oblivious to the fact that they are the prime culprit of natural disasters.

Morakot and the flooding in August 1959 were separated by 50 years.

For the past half century, technology has made constant advances, yet the government’s mindset has failed to keep pace.

Even though it is well aware that typhoons are bound to cause great damage, the government still tolerates a mindset that relies on luck.

In light of the Morakot devastation, I hope the government will review its policies on sustainable land development and take typhoons and earthquakes into account in its post-disaster reconstruction.

Apart from that, the government must remain professional and not compromise as a result of public pressure.

Jeff Chen is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Institute of Political Science at National Taiwan Normal University.