How avoidable are the costs wrought by natural disasters?

Friday, June 15, 2012
The China Post news staff

The torrential rains that wreaked havoc around the island this week have again reminded us that something needs to be done to shelter the nation from extreme weather.

It may be difficult to avoid floods and landslides, but experts have pointed out that the nation should rethink how people live in such disaster-prone areas.

Many locations have repeatedly made headlines for their dangers during torrential rains and typhoons, such as Lushan, a famous hot spring area in Nantou County.

It make sense to consider that these places should be abandoned and their residents relocated permanently to safer areas.

Many experts argue that billions have been spent on evacuating people from these areas during emergencies and on rebuilding collapsed roads and bridges afterward.

According to these experts, money has never solved the problems, which are actually unsolvable simply because of their geographical and geological weaknesses.

The same amount of money, or probably a fraction of it, is surely enough to relocate these residents.

One of these experts, Lee Hung-yuan, has now become the interior minister, and in the wake of this week's mishaps, he has again reiterated the government's attempt to introduce a new law that can force the permanent relocation of residents from these dangerous areas.

Of course such a law is not only about forcing relocations. It also involves comprehensive planning or replanning of the use of the nation's land.

A local newspaper, which supports land use planning, has noted that proposals to introduce such a law were first submitted to the Legislature 20 years ago, but there has been no progress since then.

The standstill shows the complicated nature of the issue. First, few lawmakers would be willing to support a bill that would potentially cause their constituents to be evicted from their homes.

Apart from the political reality, some basic human rights and social issues need to be addressed.

We may find some similarities in the recent urban renewal dispute in Taipei where the Wang family's homes were forcibly demolished. The Wangs refused to move despite being offered lucrative compensation — modern luxury apartments on the same site that would be worth a fortune.

But they simply loved the two old houses that a few generations of the family called home.

The land planning law would be doing the same — removing people from places that they call home. And in all likelihood, these people would be relocated far from their original homes.

Such a law would be taking all the emotional and social factors out of an equation that gives top priority to safety, as well as savings on rescue missions and post-disaster reconstruction.

But would there be sufficient land to accommodate these relocated people? After all Taiwan is such a small and densely populated island.

Is it constitutional for the government to strip the people of their land? Would a community be broken up with neighbors moved to different places? How would the relocated people make a living? Would farmers be given land on which they could farm again and would they be able to cultivate the same crops?

News footage has shown how some elderly people refused to leave their homes in Lushan despite the rising water levels and the danger of landslides during Tuesday's torrential rainfall. People might think they were silly, but their refusal to leave shows how deeply they are attached to their homes.

These are some of the questions and issues that have been behind the delay in introducing a new land planning law.

Such a law would be changing not only the use of the nation's land, but also people's lives and sense of belonging.

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