Trip to Marqwang and Smangus

I spent last week visiting Marqwang and Smangus, two communities in the houshan (後山) area of Jianshi Township (尖石鄉) in Hsinchu County. The visit was to conduct field work for a research project about the management of the Shimen Reservoir Catchment following the implementation of the Shimen Reservoir and Catchment Area Remediation Special Act (石門水庫及其集水區整治特別條例) which was passed by the Legislative Yuan in January 2006. The act created a special budget of NT$25 billion to upgrade the facilities of the Shimen Reservoir and management of the catchment area.

The Shimen Reservoir suffered severe impacts following Typhoon Aere in 2004 and several other typhoons in the period from 2001 to 2005. These typhoons caused large inflows of the sediment into the dam and compromised the ability of the reservoir to supply water to Taoyuan and Taipei counties. Michael Turton recently published a post detailing some of the problems based on an article that was published in CommonWealth magazine (天下雜誌). These two articles provide excellent background information.

A few kilometres past the town of Jianshi the road branches off to the houshan area. The large statue of the Atayal warrior in the picture above is a very distinct landmark. Passing through this place I always think of it as a distinct divider between the lowland areas and the mountain area. However, this landmark is also important for another reason. The government has a plan to construct a reservoir known as the Bilin Reservoir just downstream from this point. The dam wall would be 138 metres high and five indigenous communities would be submerged as a result of the construction. While it is still in the planning and investigation stage, the purpose of the reservoir is to meet projected future demand for water from the Hsinchu Science Park. The plan for the Bilin Reservoir (比麟水庫) also includes plans for a second dam at Xiuluan (秀巒) which is in the upper catchment of the Shimen Reservoir. A tunnel would be built to divert water from this dam to the Bilin Reservoir.

I spent three days in Marqwang although it rained for much of that time, so I had somewhat limited chances to explore the area. The photo above shows a check dam in Marqwang. An elder in the village blamed the construction of the check dam for the landslide next to it. He claimed the use of explosives in constructing the check dam had disturbed the slope. I don’t know if this is the reason for the landslide, but the construction of the check dam has had no effect on improving the safety or flow of the river. After a few typhoon events check dams like this get filled with sediment and no longer serve any useful function, except to disturb the ecology of the river.

When I arrived in Smangus they were very busy with the final days of the peach harvest. I had the chance to help with some picking and packing the peaches into boxes. On my visit to Smangus last year I was there just after the peach harvest finished so I was glad to finally see it this time (and eat some of the peaches!).

I also spoke to some of the elders in Smangus about the management of the Shimen Reservoir catchment. They claimed that in the past when they practiced shifting cultivation there were no landslides. The fields that were established by their ancestors are not affected by landslides. It is only when excavators are used to create fields that the land is disturbed and becomes susceptible to landslides. On the opposite side of the valley around Taigang there have been problems with landslides because people have excavated fields as a result of economic and population pressures. Also around Taigang the government cut a lot of trees about thirty to forty years ago and this has contributed to the problems. On the Smangus side of the valley they haven’t had these problems.

Comb dam in Jianshi District

Another thing that the elders in both Marqwang and Smangus said was that the best way both stabilise and prevent landslides is to let trees grow. They also expressed opposition to the Bilin Reservoir plan and believe that the government is trying to push them out of the mountains.

My own observation is that the extensive engineering works are like a band-aid; they are a temporary solution to bigger problem. The real issue is about land management. Indigenous people carrying out agricultural activities does not cause harm as long as it is done within limits. The indigenous people have lived in this area for many generations and have a deep understanding of the land and knowledge about the best ways to manage it.

Ultimately it is an issue of justice. Indigenous peoples should not be forced to give up their land so the government can supply water for urban and industrial development. Supply of water is a critical issue for Taiwan. The government really needs to rethink the model of industrial development in Taiwan which is not sustainable in the long term. This is in contrast with indigenous people farming in the mountains, something they have done sustainably for many generations.

*More photos in the Marqwang and Smangus July 2010 set at flickr.

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