Over the weekend I visited some of the areas affected by Typhoon Morakot in Kaohsiung County with a group of law students from Providence University. It is now more than eight months since the typhoon hit Taiwan. While there has been so much reported about the event in the media visiting these places provides a better understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.
The first part of the trip visited Liugui (六龜) and Baolai (寶來). In Liugui a Bunun elder related the history of his community. Following the typhoon they have been frustrated in their efforts to find a new place to relocate their village. Even though they have found a suitable place the government has repeatedly refused them permission to move there.
Dr Lin Yih-ren raised the important point that “moving the village” (遷村) is actually a normal part of the culture of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. Historically they also migrated to new locations within Taiwan. However, forced relocation by the government is something different and doesn’t respect the autonomy or integrity of indigenous communities.
A satellite photo in Liugui showed the extent of landslides. These occurred in both areas were people lived and also in other places were there were no people living and no agricultural or other activities. This indicates the problem is not just related to land use, but is closely linked to the geology of the area. The landscape is very fragile in nature.
Travelling between Liugui and Baolai was a chance to see some of the landslides. The roads are still under reconstruction and in some places there are temporary roads through the landslides. In some places the landslides are more than ten metres deep. The forces of nature that were unleashed were truly formidable.
On the second day of the trip we visited Tzu Chi’s Da Ai Village in Shanlin (杉林慈濟大愛村). The development of the village is still ongoing, but there are presently about 800 people living in the village. One good thing about the village is the use of surface drainage that doesn’t rely on large amounts of concrete. It is more natural and is a good example of ecological design. However, I didn’t see this reflected in the construction of the buildings or the layout of the site. The long grey lines of concrete boxes did not include any elements of passive solar design and there were no solar hot water systems installed on the roofs. The square layout and box-like designs don’t reflect the natural environment or necessarily promote the development of community. It seems more authoritarian in nature.
In two days there was only enough time to gain a preliminary understanding of the situation. It was a chance to hear some different voices at the grassroots level speaking about how they had been affected by the disaster. But ultimately in the short time there were a lot more questions than answers.
In the time immediately after the disaster people need basic assistance like food, shelter and medicine. But in the long-term they need to be self-reliant. This means government should not just think about how to provide basic assistance, but put long term plans in place that consider sustainability and security for local people. Dr Lin Yih-ren said that we should think about “people in the disaster area” (災區裡面的人民) instead of “disaster victims” (災民).
Local people need to be able to make decisions about the future, but they cannot do this while there is continuing uncertainty or if the government is unwilling to listen to their voices. It is important to make a proper assessment of local people’s needs and ensure their voices are heard and they play an active role in decision making. Local people have a lot of knowledge about the area and they are also the ones who have to live with the consequences of the decisions that are made.
Disaster also brings benefits such as construction projects, gravel and driftwood. But who actually benefits from this? This is a fundamental issue of social justice. What if infrastructure is built in a way that satisfies demands of contractors and corporations but is not appropriate or of poor quality? Who takes responsibility for this? If infrastructure needs to be rebuilt every time there is a big typhoon then corporations and contractors can profit from this, but the local people and the taxpayers are the ones who bear the burden.
While the central government is controlled by the KMT, the local government in Kaohsiung County is controlled by the DPP. The problems are not just related to political parties, but are linked to the nature of the political economy in Taiwan.
*Thanks to Dr Lin Yih-ren and Lin Shu-ya for inviting me to join this trip.
Post-script: After returning from the trip to Kaohsiung County I learnt of the landslide across the freeway in Keelung. It again highlights the fragile nature of Taiwan’s geology. While the immediate response to the disaster is important, in the long-term it is also necessary to seek answers about why this event occurred.