The impact of two weeks of “plum rains” was no less disastrous than that of a typhoon and it also shook public confidence. There were floods right across the country, resulting in more than NT$200 million (US$6.7 million) in losses for the agricultural sector, showing that the government’s huge levels of spending on mountain conservation and flood prevention over the past few years has not delivered the expected results. The rains also alerted us to the serious threat that extreme climate change poses. This is an issue that neither the government nor the public can afford to ignore.
Since we have no way of avoiding natural disasters, in order to prevent the repetition of such tragedies the government should review its national land planning strategy by focusing on the rampant development which is unfolding in Taiwan, instead of focusing on the economy or political struggles. In areas that are no longer appropriate for farming or habitation, the government should take resolute action and ban such activities and help relocate residents to other areas, while helping those affected find new jobs. However, more importantly, it should establish a comprehensive and flexible rapid disaster prevention and relief mechanism.
In the face of the constantly deteriorating climate and the risk of uncertainty that comes with it, the government could build a disaster prevention and relief mechanism by learning from the “chaotic management system” concept proposed by international experts.
First, the government should build an effective early-warning system to be able to promptly identify problems before they occur. Take, for example, an early-warning system for the agricultural sector: It should offer forecasts of current and future production levels, as well as the time frame and damage levels for possible abnormalities. It should also propose solutions to existing problems and promptly send out alerts for imminent problems and outline strategies for dealing with those problems. Agricultural early-warning systems in advanced countries include both warnings about natural disasters — such as mudslides, droughts, extreme rainfall and frost — as well as economic warnings, relating to distribution, supply and demand and price fluctuations.
Next, the government should prepare possible scenarios as a reference point when handling chaotic situations. It should gather experts from the relevant government agencies to plan for various scenario-based risks resulting from climate change. These plans should include worst-case, best-case and most-likely scenarios. In addition, they should also seek to collect a wide range of data and use advanced computer technology to simulate potential damage and losses to agriculture, life and property, the economy and other factors.
Based on the results of these simulations, they should plan general and specific response measures and then continue to test and adjust these measures to increase their accuracy. When a disaster occurs, this would allow the relevant authorities to quickly grasp and gain control of the situation, thus minimizing losses as well as public complaints.
We used to hear slogans like “prevention is better than cure.” all the time, but we can no longer deny the fact that Taiwan for many years has sacrificed the environment for economic growth. This has resulted in great improvements in our standard of living, but having lived in ease and comfort for so long, we have forgotten the importance of preparing for danger in times of peace, as well as the fact that Taiwan is located in an area that frequently suffers typhoons, earthquakes and droughts. Currently, with the exception of the Wanan air-raid drills, it seems all plans for disaster response and practical onsite drills have been put aside.
The government and the public are spending too much time and energy devoted to political infighting, yet we lack even the slightest awareness of the approaching crisis and the warnings offered by repeated disasters. The excessive development of and construction on farmland and hillsides continues apace. Whenever a natural disaster occurs, the government of the day, pan-blue or pan-green, has never seriously considered a thorough and fundamental solution, instead falling back on the simplest solution: To relieve public complaint by offering more subsidies.
The helpless victims have no choice, but to accept these subsidies, thus indirectly encouraging the administrative negligence of officials. In addition, the Control Yuan fails to fulfill its duties, allowing reckless officials to shirk their responsibilities by saying historical factors are to blame and that weather is unpredictable. This is what lies at the heart of the nation’s never ending disasters and hardships.
Even more challenges await us in the future. If the government and the public cannot learn from this month’s floods and drastically change our mode of thinking then more advice, better plans and greater funding will not be enough to solve the problem. By that time, the Mayan prophecy that the world will end this year may come true — at least in Taiwan.
Du Yu is chief executive of the Chen-Li Agricultural Reform Task Force.
TRANSLATED BY EDDY CHANG