Disaster Prevention: No Slogans Please. Just Pass the Geology Act
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
April 30, 2010
A few days ago, a landslide occurred on National Highway Number 3, near Keelung Road. An entire section of mountain near Cidu Road suddenly gave way, blocking traffic in both directions. Nearly twenty million tonnes of earth and rock slid down the side of the mountain. The situation was truly shocking. This was the first time a landslide stopped traffic on the National Highway System. So far three cars and four bodies have been discovered. The emergency response phase is over. What follows will be recovery, restoration, and a search for accountability. The landslide was not preceded by days of heavy rain. The landslide was not preceded by an earthquake. That is why even President Ma Ying-jeou, who visited the disaster site, said it left him with a "creepy feeling."
According to reports, Transport Minister Mao Chi-kuo initially speculated that substrata slippage caused the the disaster. According to geological experts, a dip slope was probably to blame. The road was located on a dip slope. The substrata consisted of relatively soft sandstone and shale. Years of erosion, plus days of rainwater infiltration, led to slippage and the landslide. The Highway Department, after several days of investigation, determined that National Highway Number 3, going north to south, has a total of 32 locations where this type of dip slope occurs. The sections range from 59 meters to nine kilometers in length. The longer dip slopes are located in the southern section. The northern section has 19 dip slopes. The central section has five dip slopes. In other words, the same disaster could happen again at any time.
National Highway Number 3 has dip slopes. Hillside residences on dip slopes also merit attention. In 1997, the Lincoln Mansions condominium in Xizhi collapsed. Government agencies placed 340 residences located on dip slopes in the Greater Taipei area on their watchlist. But because the Geology Act failed to pass, this information has yet to be released. It is our understanding that the Geology Act has been in the channel since 1996. The Legislative Yuan completed a third reading in 2004. But special interest groups exerted pressure. Forty or so legislators forced reconsideration of the proposal, and eventually killed it. The Executive Yuan has formally submitted a draft bill to the legislature for consideration.
A government is duty bound to provide information about environmental safety. Yesterday we had the Lincoln Mansions disaster. Today we have National Highway Number 3 disaster. Both the executive and the legislature must say no to special interest groups. They must pass the Geology Act, as soon as possible. They must ensure full disclosure of geological information, and expand the range of remedies.
Taiwan is located in an active seismic zone. Typhoons and floods occur almost every year. Helping the public avoid geologically sensitive and vulnerable areas should be the government's number one priority. Unfortunately disaster prevention maps and data are grossly inadequate. Providing information about faultlines, dip slopes, and other relevant information has not been a high priority. The disaster maps completed in recent years are almost all small scale maps at 1:30,000 or 1:50,000 scale. By contrast, urban planning maps or urban land maps are large scale maps at 1:1000 or 1:5000 scale. The two simply do not compare. When even the most basic maps are unavailable, how can we talk about disaster prevention?
Disaster prevention must not be all talk and no action. It must solicit the views of professionals. Domestic disaster prevention is a case of "five minutes of enthusiasm." Once the emergency has passed, it is as if nothing had ever happened. In the past, with public works or other construction, people worried only about the construction phase. When it came to environmental studies, geological surveys, and land planning, they merely went through the motions. That nothing untoward happened with most of these projects is a miracle. If the agencies in charge refuse to make systemic changes, and appreciate the importance of planning, surveys, and design, if they pay attention only to the construction phase, then more landslides will occur, one after the other.
The government's top priority should be to make full use of existing professional talent and technical equipment, to create an integrated national land monitoring body. This body will provide basic information on the island's 36,000 square kilometers of land. Changes in topography, geology, ecology, hydrology, and vegetation will be made available to everyone. This data will help government agencies make disaster preparedness decisions. It will enable the public to avoid dangerous sites, or to make disaster prevention and mitigation plans in advance, minimizing the extent of the disaster. Therefore, we call for an integrated 10 year plan for national land monitoring. We call for the creation of large scale 1:1000 or 1:5000 maps, complete with landslide, flooding, earthquake faultline, and dip slope information. These will enable people to identify which sites are environmentally fragile and sensitive, and enable them to keep their distance.
Every day tens of thousands of people drive on the national highways. They are required to pay tolls for these roads. They have the right to expect that these roads are safe. If in the future people who use the national highways also have a "creepy feeling," and are forced to worry about landslides, then a hundred apologies from the government will be meaningless.