A disaster that could have been less painful

By Paul Lin 林保華

Saturday, Aug 15, 2009, Page 8
With flooding caused by Typhoon Morakot wreaking severe damage in southern Taiwan, experts must now consider how such a disaster could have been repeated 50 years after the notorious flooding of Aug. 7, 1959. Over the past two years, Taiwan』s ability to handle disasters has deteriorated. Compared with their disaster response measures last year, the incompetent bureaucrats in President Ma Ying-jeou』s (馬英九) government have made no progress.

First, Ma criticized the Central Weather Bureau for 「misleading」 the government last year, and he has done so again this time.

Second, flooding caused by heavy rains damaged central and southern Taiwan in late May and early June last year. Ma, however, was busy having a health check, acting like a zhainan (stay-at-home youth) and avoiding the front line. After severe criticism, he finally inspected the disaster area in mid-June.

But to avoid losing face because people might think he was admitting to making a mistake, Ma claimed he was simply visiting old friends.

On the evening that Typhoon Morakot struck, Ma attended the wedding of Taiwanese poet Chan Che (詹澈) and his Chinese wife. Chan was a celebrity among the 「red shirts」 who protested against former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁).

Third, in response to last year』s flooding, Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Wu-hsiung (陳武雄) said total losses were 「only」 about NT$20 million (US$608,000). Last Saturday, the media reported that former vice premier Chiou I-jen』s (邱義仁) watermelon farm in Kaohsiung County alone suffered losses of about NT$400,000 from Typhoon Morakot. Yet on the same day, the council estimated that losses in all of Taiwan amounted to only about NT$5 million.

Are these figures credible? Although the council』s figure increased to NT$5 billion two days later, the estimate by SinoPac Holdings (永豐金控) was already three times as high.

In China, officials often overestimate the impact of a disaster to attract greater donations. But in Taiwan, officials often underestimate the impact of a disaster to conceal their incompetence. Both breeds excel at what they do.

A look at the human contribution to this disaster reveals both remote and immediate causes. The remote cause is the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government, which has always seen itself as temporarily located in Taiwan. Based on this, a short-term approach was used in resource extraction and land management.

More recently, the government』s upgrade of select cities and counties was desgined to attract votes, not improve land management. This is a shortsighted policy that will damage Taiwan』s mountains and rivers.

On Aug. 9, Democratic Progressive Party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) donated NT$1 million to Morakot』s victims. On Aug. 10, a friend called me from Hong Kong, asking how he could make a donation. Some enterprises and individuals have also extended a helping hand.

But the KMT』s heavyweights — both rich and very friendly with the Chinese communists — have been cold toward the victims. People still remember how Ma and first lady Chow Mei-ching (周美青) personally answered phone calls during a fundraising event for earthquake victims in China』s Sichuan Province last year.

But we have not seen Ma weep for Taiwan』s typhoon victims, who are struggling in a living hell. Instead, we watched him frowning as he met victims. Was this a sign of impatience?

Taiwan has been threatened by typhoons since ancient times. Despite this, we have built today』s Formosa, and we will pass this spirit on for generations to come.


Paul Lin is a political commentator.

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