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Morakot: water management that could have reduced damage in Taiwan

25/08/2009

The floods and mudslides bought by Typhoon Morakot got the public wonder again what efforts the Taiwanese government have made in water and flood management and how effective they are. Taipei Times has published an article that discusses the various issues surrounding water management.

Two water management projects were mentioned in the article, one of which was the ‘Eight-year, NT$80 billion’ project. As this was proposed when Frank Hsieh was the premier, the blue camp was very quick to call this project a failure and shift the blame to the DPP government and Frank Hsieh perhaps in an attempt to divert attention on their lack of efforts and efficiency in the rescue when Typhoon Morakot hit. Unfortunately, the article in Taipei Times did not go into enough detail about how this flood prevention project came about and how it has been manipulated and implemented by the KMT. It may leave the impression that the whole idea was not viable from the very beginning when in fact the original DPP draft special act and its special budget could have worked but were boycotted by the KMT in the Parliament for over a year and half. The items have been altered following a huge increase in the budget pushed through by the KMT caucus in 2006. At that time, Frank Hsieh had already left his post as Premier and his successor was DPP’s Su Chen-chang. The current project should be called ‘Eight-year, NT$116 billion’ programme which does not stick to the original plan. Furthermore, the efficiency of the KMT implementation has left a lot to be desired. Therefore, these two should NOT be seen as identical and Frank Hsieh and his Cabinet should not be blamed for the KMT’s manipulation and failure.

The DPP flood management proposal

For decades under the KMT regime, a lot of roads/bridges/real estate development cut straight through watercourses and wetlands without much consideration of the environmental impacts. Such a policy has reduced Taiwan’s natural capacity to relieve floods and the KMT only knows to build levees to block water. In fact, until very recently, Ma Ying-jeou still believed in this outdated practice as he commented after Typhoon Kalmaegi last year that the solution for floods was just to make levees higher.

The DPP, on the other hand, has recognised long ago that effective water management and flood prevention have to take the environment and ecological balance into account. The ‘Eight-year, NT$80 billion’ project proposed by Frank Hsieh and his Cabinet when he was the premier aimed to allocate resources to local authorities, as opposed to the central government, in flood prone areas for water management and flood prevention because the amount of money allocated to the management of rivers and watercourses by the local authority was measly and it would take about 80 years to get all the work done. The proposed project placed the emphasis on prevention methods in line with ecological balance such as the use of detention basins, dredging and flood diversion. Water drainage and sewage systems would also be cleared and/or built. Levees/dikes would only be built where necessary. This project was meant to be implemented alongside the national land restoration proposal, which I tentatively tried to explain in my previous post, in order to reach the optimal level of improvement. Unfortunately, both have been boycotted by the blue camp in the Parliament.

The KMT manoeuvre in the Parliament

The draft special act for flood management was sent to the Parliament on 18 May 2005. The blue camp blocked it straight away. They smeared Frank Hsieh through all the channels at their disposal. Some questioned why it would cost that much, where Hsieh was going to find the funding for this and whether Hsieh was compromising other important budgets for this proposal. Legislative Speaker, Wang Jing-ping, even publicly accused Hsieh of trying to buy votes with this proposal. Hsieh pointed out that Taipei alone cost the government NT$400 billion on flood problems and questioned why NT$800 billion would be too much for the whole country? There were no grounds for the accusations made by the blue camp and it was likely that the KMT was just projecting. Despite this, Hsieh kept urging the Parliament to discuss and review the draft bill but got no positive response. In July 2005, Ma Ying-jeou was elected the KMT chairperson.

In September 2005, it was still going nowhere. Hsieh made a gutsy decision to ask the legislators to take a vote of no confidence against him as Premier on the basis that his water management bill was no good for the country. This way, the President could dismiss the Parliament and the proposal could be decided through a referendum. Ma Ying-jeou then responded by saying that there was no need for such a drastic action and that the KMT caucus simply felt the content of the draft was too brief, which made the review very difficult. Two days later, the DPP administration held a press conference and showed the records of all the meetings which proved that Ma was always present. They questioned why Ma only said it was too brief after weeks of discussions at which he himself was present. In fact, the Cabinet had provided every legislator all 60 pages of relevant documents in good time. Ma was caught out but the majority of the press kept quiet about this.

In December 2005, the KMT won the majority of the counties/cities at the mayoral elections while the DPP only won seven. This was the turning point of the KMT’s attitudes towards the draft special act probably because the KMT was sure that from then on, they would be running a lot of the local authorities. If they had not won so many counties/cities, they might have carried on blocking it completely. Given that they won, they not only agreed to it but increased the total budget to NT$116 billion on 10 January 2006, completely forgetting that they (and their supporters) had accused Hsieh of buying votes with this proposal and questioned where the money was going to come from. They increased the budget probably with the intent to claim credits for the efforts in flood prevention at a later date and any shortfall would just be picked up by taxpayers. The following day, they even tried to slip in another ‘NT$500 billion over 5 years’ special budget, which was highly suspected by NGOs. On 13 January 2006, the Special Act for Flood Management was passed. As the budget has changed, the items listed underneath also had to be altered. Therefore, the project has then deviated from Frank Hsieh’s original proposal.

In May 2006, the DPP administration under Premier Su finalised the amendments to the flood management package but the blue camp boycotted the special budget for the first phase of the flood management programme. In June 2006, heavy rainfall in the south caused floods. To avoid public criticisms, the KMT put the draft budget as the second item on the list and the first was the pan-blue coalition’s proposal to impeach President Chen Shui-bian. The blue camp told the green camp that they would only review the water management draft budgets after the green camp agreed to their impeachment proposal. As a result, nothing was passed. The standstill angered people in flood prone areas in the south and many staged a protest outside the Parliament, demanding the flood management budget being passed. In the end, the impeachment was rejected and the special budget for the first phase of the flood management was approved. The first phase covered the work planned for 2006 and 2007.

KMT inefficiency in the implementation since Ma took office

The content of the programme aside, it is a fact that the rivers that flooded and spilt into those maintained by the local authorities during and after Typhoon Morakot are all managed by the central government. The most important point is that the second phase (2008 – 2010) of the programme, solely administrated and implemented by Ma’s government, has been found to be very inefficient. The completion rates were only between 20% and 30% whereas the first phase, near the end of the former DPP government, went much better than the second phase. Therefore, instead of attacking Hsieh, the media should really question what the KMT and Ma’s government have done with the NT$116 billion programme.

Water management in Kaohsiung under Frank Hsieh

To understand the potential of the original flood management proposal, we can get some ideas from the water management in Kaohsiung City because the City has escaped several floods, including the one caused by Typhoon Morakot, relatively unscathed compared to other counties/cities in the south. The city has not only recovered quickly but also been able to send support teams to other affected areas. Apart from the Mayor’s abilities in the coordination and organisation during a disaster, the main reason was the various water management projects which Hsieh initiated and completed are now showing long term benefits for Kaohsiung. For example:

After a flood in 1998 that affected Kaohsiung, especially the Ben-ho area, the City Government under Hsieh invited experts to investigate the problem and recommend viable solutions. Based on the expert assessment and recommendations, the Hsieh administration adopted ecological engineering such as building and using detention basins in conjunction with a natural lake nearby to detain water and alleviate floods. Now, the Ben-ho detention basin (wetland) has a basketball court on top and there was a pleasant park right next to it with a nice footpath. It does not only alleviate floods but also give local people a nice place they can enjoy.

Hsieh explained that the Ben-ho area used to be a natural wetland which could have valuable flood control function. As the consequences of going against the natural environment has proven more detrimental than human beings had envisaged, he and his administration endeavoured to restore or develop wetlands and green areas as much as possible. One way they encouraged local residents to turn unused space into green areas was to reduce taxes and charges on the land if the owners planted grass or trees and maintained the green. He also rejected a proposal to build a particular car park because after careful assessment, it was felt that the roads around that piece of land were to narrow to contain the potential traffic bought in by a car park anyway. As it could link to other green areas, it was turned into a wetland. Hsieh’s administration also widened and dredged the watercourses and built/clear drainage in the Kaohsiung area to help with water flows. They also built sewage systems to improve water quality in the city. The percentage of sewers went from 5% to 45% during Hsieh’s time. Hsieh also streamlined the water management structure and administration to improve the efficiency.

The Yuanshanzih Sluiceway

Another DPP effort that has been proved effective in flood prevention was the Yuanshanzih Sluiceway. This was planned under the KMT administration. However, just like the Kaohsiung MRT, it was never put into action under the KMT administration. The KMT water management was heavily dominated by those with vested interest and by whoever got the authority’s attention at the time. As such, the work was never carried out systematically and the KMT authority simply worked on random and disjointed sections of the river. It was only until Yu Shyi-kun was Premier that the project was properly carried out.

The construction started in 2002 and completed in 2004/5. The sluiceway now helps filter out mud from Keelung River. When the water hit the threshold, the sluicegate would automatically open and redirect the water into the sea. The DPP administration also dredged the watercourse, built water gates, made bridges higher and repaired dikes along the whole river. As soon as the river level reaches the threshold, the bridges would be closed to prevent floods getting in and keep the public away from danger. Apart from the construction, Yu’s administration streamlined the management system and administrative procedures to improve the effectiveness of water management. Since its completion and operation, areas that used to flood every time there was a typhoon or heavy rain such as Sijhih, Wudu, Rueifang (in Taipei County), Neihu and Nankang (in Taipei City) no longer suffer from floods. In fact, the housing markets in those areas, especially Neihu, Nankang and Sijhih soared afterwards.

It is evident that the water management projects under DPP’s Frank Hsieh and Yu Shyi-kun have been successful. Their Cabinets have also attempted to address damage with the view to restore the environment at a national level but the blue camp boycotted and manipulated those attempts for their own political gains. If the blue camp had not block the national land restoration bill and passed the original flood management as it was in 2005, a lot more could have been done. The most outrageous was that when their own inefficiency and poor behaviours were exposed and criticised, the blue camp chose to muddy the waters through the media and shift the blame to the DPP, especially Frank Hsieh, rather than owning up to their responsibilities. This puts a further dent in people’s confidence in their willingness and abilities to keep any of the promises they have made.

(Jay also contributed greatly to this post by sharing his knowledge of and observations on this matter. I would also like to thank him for reading and commenting on my draft before its publication.)

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