Friday, June 17, 2005

"Floods Reflect Serious Policy Failure"

This weeks torrential rains and flooding all over southern Taiwan revealed a public policy failure of monumental proportions.

One thing I have noticed over the years of teaching here is that Taiwanese accept natural disasters as "natural." Every year I have my students do papers on policy failures in Taiwan, such as the recent spate of droughts in the North, for their writing classes, and every year they explain them in terms of "not enough rain" or similar. Some students manage to make the connection between illegal betel nut tree planting in the mountains and water shortages, but that one involves conventional middle-class scapegoating of lower class habits. Hardly anybody seems to realize the extent to which the lived environment is a construction of public policy. Next year for my writing class I think I'm going to have them read Cadillac Desert. Does anyone know a similar study of water policy in Taiwan in English or Chinese?

Wu Hsain-Hsion (吳信雄), current chairman of the National Association of Hydraulic Engineer Unions in Taiwan, had a great commentary in the Taipei Times today that shed a harsh light on the practices of the central government and Taiwan's water policy in recent years. Discussions of public policy do not always make for exciting reading, but they are the most important kind of reading there is.

Wu's piece starts out with a pertinent observation that I had also wondered about....

During the rainy season this year, average rainfall caused floods from Keelung in the north to Hengchun and Kenting in the south. Why? The largest daily rainfall this season was about 400mm. This is not very much when compared to the 2,000mm that fell in one day on Alishan during Typhoon Herb in 1996, the 1,700mm in one day in Hsitou during Typhoon Toraji in 2001, the 1,600mm in one day in Taipei's Huoshaoliao during Typhoon Nari in 2003 or the 1,200mm at Shihmen in one day during Typhoon Aere last year.

Given the standard of Taiwan's river dredging, water drainage and metropolitan rainwater sewerage, daily precipitation of 600mm or less should not lead to floods, yet it does. Why? This issue must be approached from a policy perspective.

I lived down south during the late 1990s in Taliao, outside of Kaohsiung, and never worried about floods. Yet this time around Taliao flooded 150 cm deep. I could hardly believe it. What has happened? Well, the Central government has attempted to devolve some of its powers down to the local governments...with predictable results.

Prior to 2001, the Taiwan Provincial Government Water Resources Department (台灣省政府水利處) had a special budget of NT$8 billion (US$254.7 million) to subsidize, assist and provide technical guidance to local governments to maintain, improve and manage water resources, and to force them to prioritize flood prevention measures for rivers and water drainage.

Beginning in 2002, the government amended the Law Governing the Allocation of Government Revenues and Expenditures (財政收支劃分法) so that local government subsidies were allocated to general use, and abolished the practice of special budget subsidies coming from earmarked funds.

In other words, the money was given to local governments in unmarked brown bags, and they were told to do what they liked with it. The result?

The responsibility for local water drainage maintenance and improvements was handed to local government leaders, who now allocate funds from subsidies for general use. Because hydraulic engineering projects are part of the infrastructure and their effects aren't normally noticed, they aren't prioritized by local governments.

Probably many of you, like me, have noticed the many beautification projects in smaller towns and at the County level these days. Where has that money come from? The budget for water improvements. Not only has money been switched out of water conservation programs, but overall funding has been reduced:

After the earlier NT$8 billion budget was taken over by the government in 2003, the total water resource maintenance and improvement budget for all 23 counties and cities around Taiwan only amounted to NT$1 billion. Three counties and cities didn't even get a single cent.[emphasis mine]

Don't have political pull? Don't get cash. Simple as that. But it gets worse. When the spending authority was transferred to the local governments, the central water authorities lost their power, and were reduced to shrill reminders. Taiwan, like all modern industrial societies, runs on the Golden Rule: he who has the gold, makes the rules.

When the Water Resources Department lost its right to allocate financial subsidies, it also lost its influence over local governments.
Although the department continued to remind local governments to give priority to hydraulic engineering projects, they didn't listen.[emphasis mine]

Local governments in Taiwan are run by alliances of local organized crime, construction companies, and developers. Since elections in Taiwan have become more competitive and much fairer in recent years, public infrastructure projects and local development projects have come to resemble what many in Taiwan, including foreigners, see as a more western focus on park development, riverfront upgrading, and so on. These projects get plenty of positive press and result in more votes. Wu describes the effects:

One look at water drainage facilities -- whether in urban areas or in the countryside -- and one can see how one failed policy has brought about a negative effect in only three years. Many are dilapidated, covered with shrubbery, and plugged up by waste and mud. The only reason for this is that the effects of hydraulic engineering projects are not normally seen, and therefore bring no votes.

Wu also points to a terrifying fact in a country with plentiful rain, easily eroded soils, and complex irrigation agriculture:

What has happened to hydraulic engineering in Taiwan over the last five years? A single figure can help us understand: In 2000, the Taiwan Provincial Government Water Resource Department had a budget of NT$60 billion. This year, the annual budget for the Water Resources Agency (水利署) under the Ministry of Economic Affairs is NT$18 billion. Under the provincial government's water resource policies, one reservoir was built annually in order to provide Taiwan with a stable water supply. As a result, the government completed the Li Yu Tan, Nanhua, Hsinshan, Mutan, Chichi Lanho, Kaoping and Hsinchu Reservoirs in the 1990s. It also approved the construction of a second reservoir at Paoshan and the Hushan Reservoir, and it handled the Panhsin Water Purification Plant program as well as the Kaohsiung water quality and supply improvement program. It is only thanks to these projects that Taiwan still has a sufficient supply of water today.

Wu is obviously anti-DPP and pro-Soong (the "provincial government" subtext: the provincial governor during the 1990s was the authoritarian Soong, Chen's opponent in the recent Presidential campaign). The lauding of the provincial government needs to be put into perspective (1) it never paids its massive debts and so was dysfunctional and is now frozen and gone forever and (2) one reason the reservoir building has ended is that space for good reservoirs is largely gone. The Li Yu Tan Reservoir information page is here, and another page is here. It was begun in 1985. Wu's statement is also erroneous; Nanhua Reservoir was completed in 1988. The designer's factsheet for the Hushan Reservoir is here (the firm's politics are clear from the name) while the opposition to it has a website here.

Finally, before one is wont to blame the DPP, the budget cutting for the water resources programs began earlier. And the legislature, let us recall, is run by the KMT-PFP Alliance, not the DPP. Wu continues:

But for five years, the government has not completed any of the existing water resource development plans, and this will lead to serious water shortages. From the perspective of flood prevention, apart from the Keelung River dredging project, which is an extension of earlier plans, the disaster prevention system -- including river dredging, water drainage improvements and flood prevention -- has deteriorated seriously as a result of a shortage of funds, unclear definition of duties and responsibilities, and a lack of respect for expertise.

I like that last complaint, it makes my heart go out to Wu.

The Cabinet has recently proposed allocating NT$80 billion over eight years for a water drainage improvement program. This shows that the government has discovered the problems with existing policies and is willing to prioritize hydraulic engineering projects, which is good. But a closer look at the program reveals that it is restricted to Changhua, Yunlin, Chiai, Nantou, Kaohsiung, Pingtung, Ilan and Taipei counties. Are these the only places with water drainage problems? Or is it that their leaders paid little attention to the improvement of water drainage earlier and are now in a rush to make up for those shortcomings?

Or maybe, Wu doesn't ask, it has to do with the fact that most of those are historically pro-DPP areas....culture may be local, but pork is universal. And water projects are among the most sacred, and most popular, of pork projects.

Wu then closes with one of the best commentary conclusions I've seen in a while, for his suggestions have an element of concreteness that most recommendations do not. Many writers make the high school error of carefully outlining the problem, and then ending with the dumbest recommendation possible: "The government should pay more attention to the problem." I always ream my students out for that -- good English writing is concrete, guys. So full marks to Wu for this one.

Over the past few years, we have also seen many instances of funds aimed at disaster reconstruction or expanding domestic consumption being used to directly assist counties, cities and townships. But the lack of professional planning for these projects, as well as sloppy design, inferior quality of work, and the lack of supervisory and control mechanisms has been disheartening.

The eight-year, NT$80 billion plan should therefore be welcomed and supported, but with the following suggestions:

First, it should not be restricted to certain places, and the money should be spent where there is an urgent need.

Second, water drainage improvements should first be subject to systematic planning and a comprehensive plan should be proposed. The plan should also be subject to a strict professional evaluation, and responsibilities and duties should be unified and given to the Water Resources Agency -- which should supervise implementation to avoid any unnecessary political intervention.

Third, the eight-year plan should comply with the land restoration and conservation implementation plan (國土復育執行計劃). Adopting the ecological engineering concept, experts should be allowed to create professional programs, and specialized academics should be invited to help the Water Resources Agency apply strict professional standards and provide strict reviews of project plan design quality.

Fourth, a strict supervisory mechanism to provide implementation and quality controls should be created. Each part of a project must be correctly carried out to guarantee that the goal to improve water drainage is achieved. Bad planning, sloppy design and inferior work should be severely punished.

Taiwan is almost ideally designed for wise water policy. If you get out your map, you'll see that the counties are not laid out by tradition or mapmaker's convenience, like US states, but reflect actual watershed divisions. There's no reason that a country like Taiwan, with plentiful water resources, should be suffering from perennial water shortages. Wu neglects to recommend it, but the central government also needs to commence a full-scale plan to get the public in the habit of conserving water, including raising water prices and restricting development in water-critical regions, as well as more strongly invest in, and enforce, conservation in mountain areas.

UPDATE: Premier Hsieh announced today that there would be no water price hikes for the next year. Until the price of water rises dramatically, conservation will not respond.



Red A said...

I believe that Taiwan used to have horrendous floods with thousands dead in the 50's and 60's. Compared to that, I guess things have improved.

Jason said...

Perhaps the connection with the legislature is deeper than just petty political obstruction of the DPP gov't's plans; if memory serves, Taichung county gangstah-legislatah Yen Ching-piao has illegal gravel interests in the county along the Tachia river, as do a number of other independent (gangstah!) legislators around Taiwan.