Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Taiwan's killer typhoon

Investigation: Did a water-diversion project help kill hundreds of Taiwanese villagers?

Global Post, August 21, 2009

CISHAN, Taiwan — The blasts came every day, three times a day, so strong they made his house rattle.

Workers dynamited the mountain above Li Hui-ming's village over and over, as part of a project to divert water to a reservoir about 12 miles away.

On Aug. 9, around 5 p.m, says Li, the mountain hit back.

A wave of mud and rocks swept down over Minzu Village after three days of torrential rains. In the panicked aftermath, 40 to 50 people were yanked out of the quicksand-like mud by their fellow villagers. Some could only manage to raise a desperate hand above the muck; that was enough for others to grab onto and pull.

About 25 weren't so lucky. "We even heard some of them crying out for help," remembered Li. "But because they were too deep in the mud, we couldn't reach them. They were buried alive."

Such tragic tales have filled Taiwan's media in the past two weeks, as the island struggles to recover from its deadliest typhoon in at least 50 years. Another village not far from Li's, Shiaolin, was the worst hit, with nearly 400 feared dead in a separate mudslide.

The official death toll stood at 141 as of Thursday afternoon, with another 440 missing and now presumed dead. Now, as emergency relief efforts wind down, Taiwan is asking why this particular storm took such a high human toll. Island-wide, blame has fallen on the government for its slow and disorganized response to the disaster.

But in this part of typhoon-battered southern Taiwan, many displaced villagers say there's another culprit: the water diversion project in the mountains above their homes.

Li and others say the constant dynamiting, over at least two years, loosened the soil above their villages and so created the geological equivalent of a ticking time bomb. Record rainfall — almost 10 feet in just three days — was just the trigger.

"If it weren't for this project, I'm sure it [the mudslide] never would have happened," said Li. "This wasn't a natural disaster. It was a man-made disaster."

The government agency overseeing the project denies that the construction had any connection with the landslides, and said the project passed an environmental impact assessment.

But on Wednesday, Taiwan's environmental watchdog fined the water resources agency $4.5 million for failing to conduct a new impact assessment after changing the project, according to local media. And Taiwan's president — facing a political crisis for his government's bumbling relief efforts — told villagers Wednesday that two probes and a court inquiry would be conducted into the project.

Experts and environmentalists here are wary of commenting on how big a role the diversion project may have played in the deadly mudslides.

"It's a complex issue," said Sue Lin, a professor in the department of environmental engineering at National Cheng Kung University. "Nothing's impossible, but we need solid investigation, and some quantitative measurements" before coming to any conclusions, she said.

Lin and others say the project was just one of many factors that are hard to untangle. Doing just that will be a job for investigators in the coming weeks.

Much of Taiwan's mountain terrain is geologically weak and frequently shaken by earthquakes. De-forestation, improper or illegal development, and the planting of shallow-root betel nut and ginger cash crops has taken away natural anchors holding soil in place. Liao Pen-chuan, an environmental expert with the Taiwan Ecology Academy, an NGO, said all of these factors may have contributed to the recent tragedy. But he called the water diversion project a "hidden killer," and said the disaster should make Taiwan rethink its overall approach to water management.

"We have to set limits to our water usage," said Liao. "Now, people think, if we run out of water in one place, we can just go get it from another."

Such thinking creates a "domino effect," said Liao, where environmental problems caused by development in one area spread to other areas.

Taiwan has struggled to manage its water resources in recent years, amid increasingly extreme drought-and-flood cycles that some attribute to global warming. In southern Taiwan, water levels in key reservoirs have at times sunk to alarmingly low levels, even as water demand from households, science parks and other businesses grows.

The project above Minzu Village, due to be completed in 2013, hoped to address that issue by diverting more mountain river water to Tsengwen Reservoir via an extensive system of weirs, pipes and tunnels. The reservoir is Taiwan's largest, and the main source of water for the south.

Area residents teamed with environmental groups in 2004 to oppose the project, but to no avail. In this presentation, translated here by Taiwan-based blogger Michael Turton, one NGO ticks off a litany of concerns, though without mentioning the threat of landslides. Li said he and scores of other villagers went to Taipei to petition the government, but were told the project was government policy and couldn't be changed. Part of the problem was ethnic politics, said Li.

Most of the residents in affected areas are Aborigines, a non-Chinese minority (2 percent of Taiwan's population) that often suffers from discrimination and government neglect. This was just another case, said Li, of Aborigines being unable to make their voice heard — but this time with deadly results. Li also accuses the government of violating Article 21 of Taiwan's Aboriginal Basic Law by failing to consult Aboriginal communities affected by the project.

He said that most villagers, like him, blame the diversion project for the tragedy. And he says contrary to some officials' statements, the government never warned them or told them to evacuate. For their part, Minzu villagers trusted the mountain would hold.

"We never thought of evacuating," said Li. "Our land is very firm and tough, because our ancestors treasured nature, and never did any digging."

Now, nearly 400 Minzu villagers are housed indefinitely at two shelters — a Taoist temple and a Buddhist center — here in Cishan, a small town at the foot of the mountains that's become a staging point for relief efforts. Li says the villagers want a halt to the project, a probe into who or what was responsible for the disaster, and compensation. "We hope the government can help us rebuild our village, so we can go back to the way it was," he said.

Cishan resident Wu Tzu-hsien, 40, said he didn't have the expertise to say whether the diversion project helped create a tragedy. But he said Taiwan's mudslides were a cautionary tale for communities worldwide. "This kind of problem is getting more and more serious," said Wu, standing outside the temple housing Minzu villagers. "If we keep damaging nature, other places will have disasters like Taiwan's."

"It's the same all over the world," he said. "If we destroy nature, nature will destroy us."

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