Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hsiaolin Village: Act of God, or Men Acting like Gods?

"The whole thing is a machine, a perpetual-motion machine that keeps churning out dams, which the politicians and most westerners are reflexively in favor of, and the whole business is running the country into the ground." -- Glenn Saunders, chief counsel for the Denver Water Board, quoted in Cadillac Desert.

Cadillac Desert, an exploration of dam building in the American West, is probably the best popular nonfiction work on public policy ever written. I ponder it often when I look at water policy in Taiwan.

Today the Taipei Times reported on the ongoing accusations that the Tsengwen Reservoir Trans-Basin Diversion Project, a project to move water around in the central mountains and dump into the Tsengwen Reservoir, was behind the terrible flooding high up in Kaohsiung county and the destruction of Xiaolin Village where hundreds were buried when two mudslides converged on the town. To wit:
As Typhoon Morakot disaster rescue and cleanup work rolled into its 10th day yesterday, survivors of the hardest hit regions — Kaohsiung County’s Jiaxian (甲仙), Liukuei (六龜), Taoyuan (桃源) and Namasiya (那瑪夏) townships — continued to voice strong suspicion that the nearby Tsengwen Reservoir trans-basin diversion project was responsible for the destruction of their villages.

“Though the government said that this project did not cause Xiaolin Village (小林) to be completely wiped out, we find it hard to believe,” Xiaolin Village Self-help Association spokeswoman Hsu Wan-su (徐婉愫) said.

Since construction began two years ago, the townships have suffered several major floods, Hsu said.

“The Morakot flood took 500 lives in our village … Such floods never occurred in the past century, ever since our ancestors arrived, so our suspicions are completely logical,” Hsu said.
The Irrigation Agency denies these accusations, as can be seen in the last two slides of the Powerpoint Presentation below. The project is laconically described in this article that says the CEPD wants the project finished ASAP:
The Cabinet-level Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD), Taiwan's highest economic planning agency, Monday urged the Ministry of Economic Affairs to ensure that the Tsengwen Reservoir's water diversion project be completed by 2013.

The CEPD pointed out that the Tsengwen Reservoir, located in the southern county of Chiayi, is the largest reservoir in Taiwan, with an effective storage capacity of 596 million cubic meters.

The reservoir was completed in 1973 to regulate the flow of the Tsengwen River and to provide for the full utilization of its water, but its limited catchment area, totaling 481 square kilometers, is insufficient to provide enough water to fill the reservoir, according to CEPD officials.

Although the government has earmarked NT$21.29 billion since 2004 for a project to divert water from the Laonung Stream, a tributary of the Kaoping River, to the reservoir, some townships have been reluctant to provide the needed land for the project.

The project should have been 20.43 percent complete at the end of August, but the actual progress was 1.78 percent behind schedule, the officials said.
Like so many large water projects in Taiwan, the Diversion does not make the news often in English. Occasional events, such as the explosion in 2007 that killed two workers, have put the project into the news. At that time the Kaohsiung County chief asked for it to be rethought...
Opposed by environmentalists even before construction began in 2003, the tunnel cuts through Jade Mountain and Alishan and is expected to be completed in 2012. So far, 1,000 meters of the tunnel have been drilled.
Yang argued that the project was a waste of NT$20 billion of central government funds. The county government has opposed the tunnel, Yang said, because of environmental and ecological concerns and the negative impact it would have on tourism and small-boat recreation in the Laolong River area.
"The agency always takes the angle of an engineer," Yang said. "It just diverts water when droughts hit the region. But everyone should view the matter from a broader perspective and think about the next generation."
After this latest disaster in Xiaolin, the Tainan County Chief has also called for the project to be halted. In 2004 the Taipei Times reported:
Aboriginal people from the Bunun Tribe in the southern part of the nation yesterday held a protest in Taipei against construction plans of the Water Resources Agency, saying that a project that would transfer water from rivers running through their home towns might seriously jeopardize not only fragile ecological systems but also their quality of life.
More than 100 residents from Taoyuan township and Sanmin township in Kaohsiung County yesterday gathered in front of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, which oversees the agency.
Waving banners and singing songs, demonstrators including shamans held a ritual to curse their enemies, pledging to oppose the project, which was mapped out without consultations with residents.
Demonstrators were received by agency director-general Chen Shen-hsien (陳伸賢), who said that negative ecological impact of the projects would be limited and that an environmental-impact assessment report had been completed.
"Diverting abundant water into an existing reservoir is less devastating than building a new reservoir to meet increasing water demand in the future," Chen said.
The project envisions transferring excess water during the rainy season from the Kaoping River, which divides Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties, to the Tsengwen Reservoir in Tainan County.
This PHD thesis from NCKU, whose conclusions bear on the claims made in the .PPT I've posted below, has some pictures and maps. One figure, posted below, shows how one of the tunnels drains the area with the two hot springs, and offers a sense, through that insignificant red line, of how the project envisions removing water from different watersheds, passing it under the mountains, and dumping it in streams that eventually wind up in the Tsengwen Reservoir.

For more on tunneling in Taiwan, this backgrounder PPT mostly in English has great info on machines, rocks, and projects. Waaay cool. This paper argues, interestingly, that democratization has led to greater centralization of water policy in Taiwan, and also points out, as we all know, that in water policy, while the DPP is more willing to pursue alternatives, it has adopted the developmentalist ethic of the KMT. At present, like the Bureau of Reclamation in the US until the 1980s, the Taiwan government's water policy is to build more water infrastructure to provide more water, rather than adopt an approach that involves raising costs and encouraging conservation and green solutions. That approach simply harnesses water policy to the needs of the construction-industrial state, with the attendant long-term negative consequences.

Main presentation: an expat here with a long history of involvement in positive, progressive causes passed around a Powerpoint Presentation from a coalition of Green groups and NGOs that gives much background on the reservoir project and some of the claims made about it. I did a quick and dirty translation of it yesterday (probably many mistakes in terminology but meaning is there). It is deeply disturbing. Large water projects are generally ecologically destructive and economically short-sighted. "Dams are wasting assets," says one of the experts quoted in Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert. In this case, it looks like what they are wasting is human lives.

This .PPT, the way I understand it, argues that (1) the reservoir diversion will actually deplete water deliveries to the Kaohsiung plain; (2) the extra water diverted into Tsengwen is not needed because the reservoir has silted up and has lower capacity than it used to have, meaning that it overflows routinely in rainy seasons and must be lowered; (3) to accept the new water the water level in the reservoir has to be raised three meters, meaning that existing farmland will be flooded; (4) the water removed from other watersheds will lead to deficits that will hurt rafting and existing hot springs (but the PHD thesis above says the latter won't happen). There's some interesting stuff in here (corrected link to original).

Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Grant said...

Somehow I'm not surprised. Act of man.

Unknown said...

"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" - Ma Ying-jeou

Das Rheingold said...

Hi Michael,

I am a graduate student from Taiwan and currently study in the US. I am sorry to take this place to ask you a favor. Do you know where I can find Ma's press conference for foreign journalists? I am looking for the one without translation because I wanted to know what exactly the questions asked by the reporters.

Thanks much, Sean

Unknown said...

Hi, Sean,

For Ma's press conference open to foreign media / press, check out:
1/5 馬英九記者會-國外媒體場 2009.08.18
( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMsrLGtLrHU&feature=related)

Then you can find 2/5, 3/5, 4/5, 5/5 from youtube.

Das Rheingold said...

Thanks Jolan, but I am looking for one without Chinese translation. The Chinese translation really bothers me to hear out the questions by the reporters.

David Wen said...

You can try viewing this youtube link. There's a slight delay between the Chinese translation and President Ma speaking English. His English is pretty good! Well, he is a Harvard Law graduate so I'm not too surprised.