Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Why is Southern Taiwan Still Under Water?

Why is Southern Taiwan Still Under Water?
United Daily News editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
A Translation
August 11, 2009

Typhoon Morakot brought with it torrential rains that inundated southern Taiwan. The scenes of disaster were painful to behold. The ruling and opposition parties must follow-up on rescue efforts and post-disaster reconstruction. The government is not unaware of the importance of water management. It recently plunked down over 100 billion NT on the 1999 flood control budget. The baffling result was the more it spent the worse the flooding got. A number of missing links in the causal chain require closer examination. Only by re-thinking water management can the government prevent a repeat of the tragedy.
Typhoon Morakot and its accompanying southwest pressure system had alarming repercussions that far exceeded expectations. Over a year's worth of rainfall fell in a few short days. The rain coincided with the high tide. The accumulated water had trouble draining away. It turned out to be the flood of the century. To make matters worse, weather forecasts focused on disaster prevention in the north, to the neglect of the south. But leave these factors aside for the moment. What have the vast sums spent on water management accomplished? Based on the current disaster, one can only shake one's head.

The hardest hit area was Kaohsiung. Some townships, such as Chiatung, Linbian, and Chiahsien, were already prone to flooding. Three and a half years ago, the Chen Shui-bian administration proposed an eight year, 80 billion NT water management program. The legislature even threw in an extra 116 billion NT. The first phase allocated 30 billion NT to "areas prone to flooding." So why weren't these low-lying townships included in the improvement plan? Just where did those tens of billions in water management funds go? Perhaps the government merely tinkered around the edges, and worsened local flood conditions?

The claim that "Flood control takes big bucks" is a Big Lie. It is the product of Taiwan's populist politics. Add to this Blue vs. Green partisan infighting and central government funds finding their way into local level bid-rigging. The result is the more water management planning one engages in, the farther water management gets off track. Water management has never been amenable to quick fixes. In addition to money, it requires professional planning and regular maintenance. The billions squandered on water management clearly underscores several defects in Taiwan's water management system.

One. The government emphasizes the building of infrastructure, but overlooks routine maintenance. Too many funds must be consumed within a given time frame. Therefore water management districts continuously cook up infrastructure projects and find ways to bid them out. But water management infrastructure requires comprehensive planning. It requires constant maintenance. When discretionary funds have been spent on construction, they are no longer available for maintenance. Maintenance gets neglected. Typhoon Morakot turned southern Taiwan into "Waterworld," overnight. The main reason was at least 10 levees were breached. If one neglects the maintenance of levees, and frantically builds pumping stations willy nilly, isn't that putting the cart before the horse? Typhoon Morakot destroyed 20 bridges on Taiwan. These bridges had no personnel stationed on them to warn users of impending disaster. As a result, innocent people fell into the river. This was one more mind-boggling development.

Two. The water management system is "long on politics, short on management." Water management, including disaster prevention and disaster relief, is work requiring a great degree of professionalism. But over-politicization, the arrogance of power, and the abdication of professionals, have severed both lateral and vertical lines of communication within the system. The high speed rail system and several national highways have been built in the narrow corridor on the western half of the island. These have undermined the local hydrology. This shifts the burden onto others. How can the government prevent national infrastructure projects from destroying the hydrology? Does the Water Resources Agency have any say in the matter? Just look at the operations of the central government's disaster relief center. President Ma and Premier Liu got in each others' way during their tours of inspection. As we can see, no matter how high one's rank, one never has enough information, and the information one has, fails to provide a command of the overall situation. So why not let more professionals take charge of disaster relief?

Three. The government fails to discriminate between the essential and the trivial. Corruption is widespread. When the Eight Year 80 billion Discretionary Budget was first proposed, it was criticized as being short on specifics. Later, during implementation, it was difficult to avoid favoritism. This led to the inversion of water management priorities. Many high and low ranking officials were implicated in corruption scandals involving government/business collusion. Former Vice Minister of Economic Affairs Hou Ho-hsiung alone was implicated in seven cases of corruption, and sentenced to nearly seven years in prison. This reveals the magnitude of the economic interests involved. To prevent the continued abuse and squandering of the water management budget, the government must invite experts to set up a special committee to oversee discretionary budgets. Otherwise, big bucks will be spent, but the flood waters will continue to rise. Is that fair to the public?

Water management is not a popularity contest. It is not a contest to see who is the hardest worker. It is not a matter of throwing money at a problem. If one lacks the necessary vision for comprehensive national land use planning, if one lacks respect for the people and their property, if one lacks respect for Mother Nature, one cannot succeed in water management. A half century after the 8/7 Flood, the 8/8 Flood has given us a wake-up call.

2009.08.11 06:25 am









No comments: