Pollution, water supply need action

By Shu Chin-chiang 蘇進強  / 

Thu, Apr 11, 2013 - Page 8

In a public speech a few days ago, Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) said that Taiwan suffers from a serious shortage of water. He candidly admitted that the problem was that the government was not paying due attention to the water crisis, because it was only concerned about elections. In fact, it is not only the central government that pays scant attention to this problem — the same is true of local governments, no matter which party is in charge of them. Lee and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) keep alerting the public to the current water shortage, but people in Taiwan have been suffering from a lack of clean water and unpolluted air for a long time.

Chi Mei Group founder Hsu Wen-lung (許文龍) recently decided to set up an association devoted to protecting and monitoring the sea around Taiwan. He made this decision after he went deepsea fishing and failed to catch any fish, which caused him to become concerned that our rivers and seas are too heavily polluted.

Hsu’s association is to bring together elected officials and experts from related fields to monitor all the nation’s rivers and the seas around our shores, and draw up and enact a law preventing and controlling river and sea pollution. Such a law would treat Taiwan’s heavily polluted rivers and sea as disaster zones. It would propose preventive measures and mandate the formation of specialist agencies to jointly protect our rivers and marine resources. Hsu is to be admired for his efforts in this regard.

Economic growth, industrial development, a burgeoning population, urban sprawl and the overexploitation of mountains and forests have knocked Taiwan’s ecology out of kilter. Various problems have been cropping up one after another. One of them is hypertrophication — or overgrowth of algae — in ponds and lakes. Others include streams and rivers becoming murky or drying up, and inadequate water storage in reservoirs.

Taiwan’s rivers are becoming increasingly polluted, as are the water resources used for irrigation and human use. Government departments are quite aware of how serious the situation has become, but when it comes to dealing with it, they are often very passive and departmentalist, only willing to handle problems within their own department’s remit. Various departments often do not communicate adequately among themselves, or they may be too underfunded to do their work properly. Civil servants and elected officials may be hypocritical, greedy or in cahoots with businesses or criminal gangs.

For all these reasons, pollution keeps going from bad to worse.

Nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 50 primary and secondary rivers are polluted to some degree. All these rivers eventually flow into the sea, generating marine pollution and directly causing the phenomenon observed by Hsu of an island without fish or clean, sandy beaches. This problem is now more serious than our forebears could ever have imagined.

It goes without saying that cleaning up our water resources is a vital, urgent task. The problem is that the authorities responsible for fighting pollution are divided between the central and local governments, as well as being separately concerned with environmental protection, agriculture, social services, industry and policing. Consequently, policies for dealing with water pollution are poorly integrated, with each department doing its own thing.

When it comes to policy implementation, different departments with overlapping powers often pull in different directions. To make matters worse, central and local funding for cleaning up pollution may be carved up by elected officials and other people with a finger in the pie, with the result that the money does not go where it is really needed or serve its intended purpose.

Take Yunlin County, for example. Hardly any waterway in the whole county, save for a few mountain streams, is free of pollution. The main culprits are the pig farmers who are to be found in almost every town and village. Even though they all receive government subsidies to install sewage treatment equipment, many of them choose to save a few thousand New Taiwan dollars on their electricity bills by secretly laying pipes that carry their pigs’ effluent straight into ditches and streams. This practice causes the stinking sewage to spread far and wide.

Government bureaucrats seem unable to put a stop to this abuse, while elected officials whose foremost concern is getting farmers to vote for them turn a blind eye to the pollution problem. As a result, sewage from pig farms flows all over Yunlin’s picturesque countryside, providing a breeding ground for disease, and the county’s water is off the scale for drinking purposes.

There is no shortage of successful precedents around the world for cleaning up polluted waterways. Japan’s Tokyo Bay, South Korea’s Han River and the River Thames in England have all been given new leases on life, thanks to the joint efforts of governments and ordinary people, and they are all cases from which Taiwan could learn a lesson.

A key factor is the existence of comprehensive laws. Where such laws exist, there should be a single department responsible for implementing them, transcending the interests of parties and factions. Vertical integration, horizontal connections and unification of powers are essential conditions for the authorities concerned to safeguard Taiwan’s sustained development and create a healthy homeland for the public.

It would be a good idea for Hsu to join up with like-minded businesses that could contribute money and other resources to work together for the common good. Government departments, for their part, should keep in touch with Hsu’s association and other non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations to set up a network to monitor, report and prevent pollution in rivers, the sea and local communities.

In this way, Taiwan need not become an island with no sand and no fish, but rather a sustainable and healthy homeland.

Shu Chin-chiang is president of the Foundation of Taiwanese Culture and a former national security consultant.

Translated by Julian Clegg