Fri, Jan 10, 2020 - Page 13 News List

Highways & Byways: A return journey to Hushan Dam

Built amid complaints from environmentalists and bird enthusiasts, the mostly deserted dam in Yunlin County offers visitors extensive views of the surrounding landscape

By Steven Crook  /  Contributing reporter

Looking down the reservoir’s spillway.

Photo: Steven Crook

There was, as there often is in Taiwan’s countryside, the rumble and screech of a distant karaoke. But once the singing session had finished and the sound had died away, it was blissfully quiet. In Taiwan, silence is an even more precious commodity than proximity to nature.

Sheltering from the sun under a viewing platform atop Yunlin County’s Hushan Main Dam (湖山主壩), I turned away from the reservoir just in time to see a Crested serpent eagle rise above the barrage. It hovered for a few moments, then dived out of sight. I don’t think I scared it away. It hadn’t even glanced in my direction. Most likely, it’d spotted a rodent or a tasty-looking lizard.

This was my third visit to this corner of Yunlin County, but the first since 2007. Back then, I’d visited at the behest of environmentalists opposed to the dam project. Some of them were concerned that, by increasing the region’s supply of water, the reservoir would make possible even greater industrialization along the coast. Others were birding enthusiasts who feared for the future of the Fairy pitta, a spectacular but (according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species) vulnerable avian.

The Chinese name of the Fairy pitta (八色鳥) translates as “eight-color bird” It has white, green, yellow, and red plumage on its underside; two shades of blue on its wings; plus black and brown on its head. It’s somewhat larger than the Eurasian tree sparrows common throughout Taiwan.

The Fairy Pitta is far from numerous — estimates for the total global population range from 1,500 to 7,000 — yet it’s found in several parts of East and Southeast Asia. Much of what has been described as the species’ “most important breeding site” now lies underwater, or was seriously impacted by the construction of the three conjoined dams at Hushan. According to figures published on the Web site of Taiwan’s Public Television Service Foundation, the number of Fairy Pittas in the area fell from 150 to 160 before ground was broken to fewer than 60 in 2011.

If you go

Getting there

You’ll need your own vehicle, or good legs and tremendous patience. The nearest bus stop is almost 3km from Hushan Reservoir Management Center at Xincuo (新厝), and just three #7131 buses per day connect it with Douliu.

I’ve not been able to find more recent data, even though in late 2008 the government established the 1,737-hectare Yunlin Huben Fairy Pitta Major Wildlife Habitat (雲林湖本八色鳥野生動物重要棲息環境) to preserve the bird’s habitat and related forest ecosystems. Naturalists were further dismayed that the project would inundate Youcinggu (幽情谷), a narrow ravine home to rare plants and 21 of Taiwan’s 37 amphibian species.

Other opponents worried that the dams (total length 1,621m) could collapse during an earthquake, sending a wall of water through the communities that lie downstream. I asked the contractor about this, and was told that a key feature is a cut-off wall whose characteristics, among them density, are deliberately similar to the surrounding soil and geology. Therefore, if there’s a serious tremor, the cut-off wall will “resonate” (shake) with the ground, reducing the risk of cracking and water leakage.

In April 2016, the dam’s sluice gate was closed and the reservoir began to fill up. The body of water thus created has a surface area of just over 2km square. However, earthworks are ongoing, because the authorities determined that a second intake-outlet will reduce expenditure on silt removal.

When I arrived at Hushan Reservoir Management Center (湖山水庫管理中心), having pedaled up the hill from Douliu (斗六), a security guard told me I couldn’t take my bike any further. The roads immediately north and south of the reservoir that I’d seen on satellite photos were off limits to all outside vehicles. I had no choice but to join the joggers and senior couples strolling along the top of the barrage and taking in the view over Douliu.

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