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What can we learn from Soudelor

What can we learn from Soudelor

Every time a typhoon grazes through Taiwan, it rarely attracts much public attention – a glimpse over the weather forecast on national news, and that’s about it. To the average Joe, chances are that an approaching typhoon would mean possible “typhoon break,” or a day off from work if it happens to be on a weekday. On the other hand, government officials would put up a buffooning show over at the Central Emergency Operation Center for the sake of the local media, a control room that strangely enough bares resemblance to a downsized version of NASA’s space center.

Pretentious or not, officials in high positions would look good on camera if Mother Nature went easy on them. Rhetoric consisting of blames would only kick in when major catastrophes are incurred.

Impervious over the matter, the setup is so routine every summer that nobody ever bats an eyelid. The “Five Ws” – Who, What, Where, When, Why – often used in investigative journalism or police work, is often snubbed and overlooked. It’s fair to say that only a handful of environmentalists in Taiwan take soil and water conservation seriously.

While there are laws and agencies governing environmental conservation, rules are not always enforced – except when trouble looms (however quickly forgotten). The same can be said with Taiwan’s traffic laws.

Just days prior to the arrival of Typhoon Soudelor – categorized as “Super Typhoon” made famous by our friendly CNN newscast across the Pacific, the talk of the town was nothing short of provision stocking performed by the public, or visits to Taipei’s pumping stations undertaken by officials.

As Soudelor swept through Taiwan last weekend, it created calamities with substantial flooding, landslides and agricultural losses reminiscent of the 2009 Typhoon Morakot (although on a smaller scale.) The aboriginal town of Wulai in the outskirt of Taipei took the hardest hit, as Soudelor wiped out several hotels, destroyed hot springs in the region, and trapped over 3,000 residents in the area. The Nanshih River that flows through the district has changed and the riverbank was eroded heavily by surging water. Heavy landslides were attributed due to the overdevelopment of the mountain areas around the river which damaged the soil and water conservation along the sloped lands.

The topic on overdevelopment has been talked to death, but plans for a major makeover never came through. Mired by the business-political tangle often perceived as a way of life in Taiwan, land abuse is very much dealt with a “laissez-faire” attitude. Moreover, everybody who’s anybody with strings attached oftentimes get away with such practice.

Among the shoddy real estate developments and lavishly-decorated recreational centers made to appeal to both local and international tourists, the notorious betel nut plantation is one of the biggest culprits of environmental destruction in Taiwan.

Aptly-named the “Taiwanese chewing gum,” betel nuts have over the last three decades been an economic miracle for many farming villages. Despite its terrible image - the government does not encourage, provide guidance for, or prohibit betel-nut growing – the plantation grows stronger by the day, thanks to the leniency bestowed by the government. According to the Council of Agriculture, betel nuts are one of Taiwan's largest agricultural produce.

Unlike trees, bushes, and groundcover of the forest, betel palms don’t absorb and retain rainfall, especially those grown on mountain slopes. Their negative impact on flood control is worsened further by their root systems, which have a relatively loose grip on the earth.

According to previous reports published by the National Taiwan University's School of Forestry and Resource Conservation, the irrigation required by the palms in their growth phase also uses up significant volumes of water directly. A hectare of betel nut uses as much as 100,000 metric tons of water per year, or about five times the amount that rice does.

Although the betel nut plantation cannot be directly linked to the cause of the Wulai tragedy, it was one of the main reasons for the devastating landslides in Xiaolin Village in southern Taiwan during Morakot. Who knows what typhoons with similar strengths such as Soudelor will bring to Taiwan’s rural villages in the future.

Whether it’s Wulai, Xiaolin or any other mountain settlements, they are nevertheless reflections on fundamental matters. As the island experiences several typhoons every year and is located in an earthquake zone, landslides are a natural occurrence. However, overdevelopment of the land could make landslides a serious problem.

Since typhoons and landslides are unavoidable facts, if it is at all possible to avoid building a new mountain road, then it should not be built, and if it is at all possible to stop a development, then it should be stopped and the area restored.

So, the next time a new typhoon approaches, other than to keep abreast with the possible “day off” giveaway, we should probably ask what changes have been done for the sake of the environment. Otherwise, brace yourselves when the typhoon blows.

Updated : 2021-09-29 10:28 GMT+08:00