Suhua Highway Improvement Project: Proceed with Caution
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
October 27, 2010
The Suhua Highway has experienced its most serious landslide ever. Hundreds of people were trapped in their vehicles. As of today, 25 people are still unaccounted for. Typhoon rains struck the Suhua Highway. They shook public confidence in highway safety along the Hualien/Taitung scenic route. Local governments are demanding that construction on the Suhua Highway Improvement Project begin as soon as possible.
Hualien County Chief Fu Kuen-chi uttered some harsh words. He demanded that the central government begin construction on the Suhua Highway Improvement Project immediately. Otherwise, he might lead people the long way around to the nation's capital, as a gesture of protest. Fu Kun-chi said that "The construction of the Suhua Highway Improvement Project is not an economic issue, but a humanitarian issue." The central government must not continue making excuses. The Suhua Highway landslide was not merely a "national embarrassment," it made us an "international joke." Numerous Mainland tourists were among the casualties. Taiwan's image as a destination for international tourism has suffered considerable damage.
Yesterday the Hualien County Council's regular session was changed to a special inquiry into the Suhua Highway Improvement Project. Council Members blasted the central government for long neglecting the fundamental rights of Hualien citizens. County Speaker Yang Wen-chi said that if construction on the Suhua Highway Improvement Project did not begin immediately, the county council would adjourn and stage a long term protest.
The Suhua Highway landslide caused a significant number of casualties. EPA Chief Chen Shi-hong pointed out that "out of on humanitarian concerns, the EPA would expedite its administrative procedures." He said that such an unfortunate incident must not be allowed to recur. He said that following "sufficient discussion and respect for professionalism," the EIA for the Suhua Highway Improvement Project would be completed as soon as possible. Chen Shi-hong also believes that even before preliminary assessment, the developer had already reached an understanding with environmental groups and local citizens. As a result, the preliminary assessment encountered little controversy. It appears it will be passed as soon as possible.
Environmental groups have been under considerable pressure. Anything they say at this moment, is unlikely to be well received. They insist that the EPA can expedite its assessment process, but must not rubber stamp the project and rush it through. In their view, the purpose of an EIA is to help everyone solve problems. For example, if the geological conditions along the route are not suitable for construction, then any potential hazards must be addressed. The Suhua Highway Improvement Project is feasible. But we must proceed with extreme caution.
First, we should point out that calls from folks on the eastern seabord for a "safe way home" must be viewed from the perspective of social justice, rather than economic development. The question concerning the Suhua Highway Improvement Project is not "whether the highway should be improved," but "how the highway should be improved." Past discusssions of the Suhua Highway Improvement Project were about balancing "economic development" and "environmental sustainability." Today however, it is all about "social justice." The Suhua Highway Improvement Project must be implemented as soon as possible, It will improve traffic safety and disaster relief capabilities along the Suhua Highway. During the planning and construction process, we must of course do everything in our power to minimize the environmental impact.
If we wish to discuss the Suhua Highway Improvement Project, we must go back and discuss the Suhua Highway Project. Past controversies over the Suhua Highway did not concern the northern section, where the current disaster occurred. They concerned the southern section, the section south of Chung-teh. The northern section was prone to disaster. A consensus had already been reached. That section had to be rebuilt as soon as possible. According to Highway Administration statistics, between '94 and '98, the Suhua Highway was impassable in both directions for as many as 224 days. The annual average was 45 days. Whether residents could connect with the outside world depended on Mother Nature's whims.
When the DPP was in power, the Suhua Highway EIA authorized construction toward the northern section, but reserved judgment on the southern section. But following the second change in ruling parties, the DPP decided to leave this political hot potato to the incoming Ma administration. The Ma administration followed up by announcing the construction of the Suhua Highway Improvement Project.
According to Directorate General of Highway plans, the Suhua Highway Improvement Project would cost 46.5 billion NTD. The Suhua Highway collapsed in three places. Eroded and endangered coastal stretches are being improved. Seven long and short tunnels will be constructed along the 77 km section between Suao and Chung-teh, improving safety. Two single opening two lane tunnels will be constructed between Suao and Tungao, one of the stretches most seriously affected by landslides. The stretch between Tungao and Nanao will follow its original route. The Suhua Highway Improvement Project will be only 60.4 km long. But it will save about 45 minutes of driving. The Suhua Highway Improvement Project has affected the environmental impact assessment statement issued on October 8 of this year. Planning and design are proceding simultaneously. We only hope that by the time the EIA has been completed, bidding can begin immediately.
But no matter how one looks at it, the Suhua Highway Improvement Project has not solved all the problems. The current landslide took a toll in human lives. But it had little to do with the expedited environmental assessment of the Suhua Highway Improvement Project. The government must not focus on the new road while neglecting the old road. Even if we construct new roads, we will continue to use the old road. Even if the Suhua Highway Improvement Project tunnels are completed, the old road may still experience landslides. Similar incidents may still happen. We must look at them from a scientific and engineering point of view. We must establish early warning systems. We must prevent falling rocks from causing injuries to people and vehicles.
In the face of climate change, extreme weather conditions have become the norm. In the face of unpredictable weather, we must build better early warning systems. We must also review the effectiveness of Taiwan's disaster prevention measures.