Thursday, August 13, 2009

Destroyed Villages: The Earth's Warning to Taiwan

Destroyed Villages: The Earth's Warning to Taiwan
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
August 13, 2009

Thirteen years ago Typhoon Herb severely damaged the Central Cross-Island Highway in Nantou. For the first time the public on Taiwan understood the meaning of the term "landslide." Thirteen years later, Typhoon Morakot raged through Kaohsiung and Pingtung. Landslide damage was so severe entire villages were wiped out, buried beneath mountains of mud. In Hsiaoling Village, Chiahsien Township, over 200 households vanished from the face of the earth, overnight, leaving people in shock, grief, and confusion. But why was Hsiaoling Village destroyed?
Hsiaoling Village is located on the east bank of Nanhsinghsien Creek, on Taiwan Provincial Highway Route 21. It is nestled between mountains and streams. It was originally a beautiful, lush green village on Pingpu Tribal land. The day disaster struck, it was not the Nanhsinghsien Creek that swallowed up Hsaoling Village, but an unnamed, untamed creek that flowed through the village.

The Landslide Red Alert issued by the Council of Agriculture classified two untamed creeks in Hsiaoling Village as "high disaster potential creeks." These could trigger landslides. The untamed creek that wiped out the village was designated DF006 on the map. An intense rainstorm loosened soil and boulders atop the mountain, half of which was washed through the village by the raging creek waters, instantly burying the village in its alluvial fan.

The Council of Agriculture fulfilled its obligation to warn of landslides. But its risk assessment report described the danger as "low." The region under alert included only five households. In fact over 200 residences were buried in the carnage. The landslide warning smacked of government bureaucrats covering themselves in the event something went awry. It was not a serious effort "to protect and serve." Worse still, last year Chiahsien Township requested that the creek be cleared. The Water Conservation Bureau turned down the request. The reason it gave was "The gravel is valuable. The request for creek clearing could be motivated by commercial interests." What sort of attitude is that?

Hsiaoling Village was not the only village wiped out. Two years ago, farther north along Route 21, three villages whose names were changed from Minzhu Village, Minquan Village, and Minsheng Village to Namaxia Village, were also severely damaged. Liukuei Village and Taoyuan Village, on the other side of the mountain, along the Lao-Nong River, have been cut off from outside contact. No one even knows what their situation is. Farther to the east, in Taitung, Chialan Village and Taimali Village, many houses were washed away by raging creek waters. Some were even carried out into the Pacific Ocean. The tension between man and the earth has reached the breaking point. Shouldn't we stop to ponder cause and effect?

In addition to heavy rains, what factors were responsible for intensifying the landslides? Over-development was one. Hsiaoling Village was a long-established village on Pingpu Tribal land. Landslides were unheard of. This suggests that the initial choice of location was not the problem. This was clearly different from the many settlements on the banks of creeks established by Hans who migrated from the flatlands. The problem is that in recent years, many outsiders have settled in Hsiaoling Village. The surrounding mountainsides have been continually developed. Ginger and taro crops require deep plowing. They rapidly deplete the soil. They imperceptibly undermine the adjacent soil and water.

According to the Butterfly Effect, a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the globe. Perhaps Hsiaoling village was wiped out because someone plowed a field, or dug a pit, or built a house he shouldn't have within the watershed. He may have destroyed the ecological balance. The result was the destruction of the village, and the loss of ancestral lands. But who will be held accountable in such a complex chain of causation? Some people are also sure to ask, when did it become a sin to labor in the fields?

Actually last year Typhoon Kalmaegi gave Hsiaoling Village a warning. A bridge outside the village was destroyed. Soil and boulders were washed into nine out of ten houses in the village. But because no human lives were lost, outside attention focused on casualties in Yukuanghsiang Village in neighboring Tungan Township. The warning was ignored. The only conclusion was, "It must be rebuilt as soon as possible." Hsiaoling Village once consisted of only a few dozen households. People used hand tools to scratch out a living. They were incapable of inflicting much damage to the land. But when the population surged, and excavators and bobcats became common, the scale of operations were increased in the pursuit of the bottom line. How can man maintain a balanced relationship with the earth under such circumstances? How can the ecological balance not be upset?

As one enters the new Central Cross-Island Highway, one can see excavators sitting on both sides of the Nantou Highway, and the storefronts of earth-moving machinery rental places. It is not difficult to imagine the extent to which such machinery is abused on Taiwan. It is not difficult to imagine the destructive impact of unrestrained development on the mountain regions. In recent years, the popularity of Taiwan's high mountain fruits and vegetables have proven the initiative of local farmers. But in the process, they have gone down a dangerous road. Who knows when they will fall over the precipice? The Chihpen and Hongyeh Hot Springs resorts in Taitung, the Baolai and Maolin Hot Springs resorts in Kaohsiung, and the Meishan Hot Springs resort in Chiayi, have all been been severely damaged. This reveals problems with development and management.

The public on Taiwan was unfamiliar with landslides a dozen or so years ago. Now, each landslide is worse than the last. Besides bemoaning the loss of life, what can we learn from the destruction of these villages?

2009.08.13 06:22 am




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