As millions of Taiwanese hit the road, took the high-speed rail or flew home to celebrate the Lunar New Year last week, one area of Taiwan had nothing festive about it: Three years on, many parts of Greater Kaohsiung devastated by Typhoon Morakot in August 2009 continue to bear the scars of nature’s fury and government inattention.
Traveling the area, one is struck by how little has changed since Morakot, the most damaging Typhoon to hit Taiwan in decades, swept through southern parts of the nation, causing billions of dollars in damage and killing as many as 700 people.
Most roads around Siaolin Village (小林) and Namasiya Township (那瑪夏) remain unpaved, making it very difficult for vehicles to drive around and subjecting visitors to unbearable dust clouds.
In Siaolin, a single, forlorn house that by pure luck was spared in a landslide that killed hundreds, remains defiantly. Underneath the heavy canopy of rocks lie the remains of bodies never uncovered, a reminder of our powerlessness against the forces of nature. The area is filled with dry rivers filled with rocks, crushed roads and tunnels, and the sundry remnants of man-made objects pulverized by a much greater force.
Nearby, parts of Namasiya Township look like they belong in war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan, not in a modern, wealthy country. The town has seen little rebuilding since 2009. Schools and community centers all lie empty, the walls still bearing the signs of waters rising to unfathomable levels.
New, slightly out of place pastel-colored bridges are being built, with several others standing temporarily. The entire zone has the feel of an immense construction site, with cars and trucks negotiating gravel roads at a snail’s pace, often near dangerous cliffs.
Some communities have been rebuilt, such as one with the assistance of World Vision, but the progress is largely insufficient and has been far too slow to compensate for the thousands of households that were wiped out during the deluge. One wonders whether the small communities that have been rebuilt — often with little attention paid to the traditions of the Aborigines whose homes were destroyed — were not erected simply to show that the government was doing something and providing convenient photo opportunities when necessary.
More than three years after the catastrophe, surely there should be more signs of progress. That this is not the case highlights the lack of commitment by local and central government to sustained and durable efforts to help rebuild the lives of those hit by the typhoon.
Given the magnitude of the devastation, the Greater Kaohsiung government alone cannot be responsible; this requires a coordinated effort at both local and national levels, with investment to rehabilitate the largely Aboriginal part of the nation.
The little progress that has been seen serves as a reminder that governments often regard Aborigines as second-class citizens, leaving them to fend for themselves, while the rest of the country presses ahead with science parks, glitzy shopping malls, casinos and extravaganzas of all sorts.
Worse is that while other emblems of social injustice — from government-sanctioned theft of agricultural land to the exploitation of workers — manage to make the news and become part of the national discourse, the inhabitants of the wastelands left behind by Morakot are simply ignored, compassion for their ongoing plight having faded a long time ago.