EDITORIAL : Disaster management comes first

Mon, Apr 19, 2010 - Page 8

For the second time in just over two months, residents of Siaolin Village (小林), among others, have been left fuming in the wake of a government-­sanctioned report on the destruction of their village in August last year because they didn’t like the results of the investigation. On Wednesday, a team of geologists commissioned by the National Science Council (NSC) said that the tens of millions of tonnes of mud that buried the village during Typhoon Morakot was the result of Mount Siandu’s (獻肚山) unstable geological composition, compounded by the heavy rainfall brought by the typhoon. The scientists said they could not rule out that the explosives used to construct a water diversion tunnel had contributed to the collapse because they hadn’t investigated the issue since a Public Construction Commission (PCC) report released on Feb. 1 had concluded that the demolitions had not been a contributing factor. The PCC report noted that 1,856mm of rain fell in 72 hours in Siaolin, 156mm more than the area could theoretically withstand.

Siaolin survivors, environmentalists and many others have blamed the mudslides on the tunnel project. Tainan County Council Speaker Wu Chien-pao (吳健保) said on Aug. 21 last year that residents had opposed the project from the very beginning because of fears that blasting could leave the surrounding area unstable. The Water Resources Agency, however, has vehemently defended the project, despite it being fined for failing to obtain permission for part of the work.

The day of the release of the NSC report also saw the Green Party Taiwan issue a warning over a threat to mountainous areas in Nantou County from overdevelopment and excessive logging by tea farmers and property developers in areas near the Jhuoshe Forest Trail (卓社林道) and the catchment area of the Sun Moon Lake Reservoir. The party said that Nantou risked becoming “the next Siaolin.”

Taiwan has had more than its share of disasters, many of which have been a fatal combination of the forces of nature and human error, such as the 1997 Lincoln Mansions tragedy that killed 28 people and the collapse of schools and other low-level buildings during the 921 Earthquake, which killed more than 2,400 people.

We may never know for sure exactly what triggered the Siaolin mudslides — at least to everybody’s satisfaction — but we do know that Taiwan’s unique topography has left it vulnerable to a host of natural disasters, from its location in Typhoon Alley to the tectonic effects (ie, earthquakes) of its location along the edge of the Eurasian and Philippine Sea plates. This uniqueness led David Petley, a Durham University professor — on this very page in August last year — to hail Taiwan’s “almost mythical status” among landslide researchers because of its “extraordinary natural susceptibility to landslides and debris flows.”

He urged Taiwan to, among other steps, create a national disaster management agency to coordinate both disaster risk reduction and disaster response, implement a comprehensive national plan for managing slopes, expand research into the natural processes that create hazards in mountainous areas and ensure that the research results are included in the planning and management process. These are all long-term efforts that could take years to pay off. They run counter to the “firefighting” mode of crisis management that has long been the hallmark of Taiwan’s government, as well as the quick-fix mentality of politicians and the tourism-development agendas of many local governments and businesses.

The search for answers to the Siaolin and other disasters should not delay efforts to improve disaster prevention and response as well as environmental management capabilities on both national and local level. Nor should we allow turf battles between government agencies, political ambitions, special-interest groups or the rallying cry of “economic development” to stand in the way.