Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 2 News List

Disaster prompts relocation plan

TROPICAL STORM Engineering cannot save people from disasters in mountainous areas, conservationists said -- the only solution is to relocate them somewhere safer


One week after Tropical Storm Mindulle struck Taiwan, causing devastating floods in the center and south of the country, officials proposed the idea of relocating people living in mountainous areas that are vulnerable to natural disasters.

"There's no omnipotent engineering method that could ensure the safety of people living in places that are not suitable for human habitation," said Wu Huei-long (吳輝龍), director-general of the Council of Agriculture's Soil and Water Conservation Bureau.

Wu said the council's newly established advisory task force would help the bureau complete a survey of vulnerable villages as soon as possible.

Having completed a preliminary analysis of the recent landslides and mudflows that had been triggered by rising water levels in rivers, experts suggested that short-term strategies should be adopted to avoid natural disasters.

"However, relocating people will be the long-term solution," Wu said.

The Executive Yuan estimates that at least NT$26.8 billion will be needed for reconstruction projects in areas devastated by flooding on July 2, in which 27 people died. A total of 4,427 victims were rescued, while 9,382 people were evacuated.

Council advisors said that the worst disasters occurred in mountainous regions such as Sungho and Lishan in Taichung County and Hsinyi and Jenai in Nantou County. The devastation followed abnormally high rainfall figures in excess of 1000mm within three days after Mindulle hit. The geological structure of the worst-hit areas had been loosened by the devastating 921 Earthquake in 1999.

"However, we have no choice but to respect Mother Nature. People should use self-restraint and be smart enough to avoid living in dangerous places," Wu said.

However, relocating people is not an easy task. Wu said the bureau had suggested the idea about a decade ago, but a number of residents returned to their dangerous villages to earn a living, especially since tea gardens and orchards on high mountains have become very profitable over the past decade.

In a bid to ensure the safety of people living in mountainous areas in the wake of the 921 Earthquake, the bureau had carried out numerous reconstruction projects based on ecological engineering methods, which had been strongly recommended by the Public Construction Commission. Although these engineering me-thods place equal emphasis on disaster prevention and ecological preservation, they were not well received in Taiwan due to vested interests in engineering circles.

Water Resources Agency (WRA) Director General Chen Shen-hsien (陳伸賢) said that ecological engineering methods cannot be applied everywhere with the same level of success.

"Based on WRA engineers' experience, ecological engineering methods suit gentle slopes of reasonably straight river banks," Chen said.

Concrete constructions built by the WRA along major rivers just barely stood up to Tropical Storm Mindulle. Cement embankments confine the flow of river water and some of these succumbed to the recent flooding.

Hung Ju-jiang (洪如江), professor emeritus of civil engineering at National Taiwan University, said that it would take time to overcome the resistance to change in engineering circles.

"Compared with advanced European countries, the training of [local] civil engineers has excluded ecological concerns for decades," Hung said.

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