What you need to know
Drenched with torrential rains, south Taiwanese have just about had it with the ineptitude of their politicians at managing natural disasters.
Being a tropical city, Taiwan’s southern metropolis of Kaohsiung does have its ‘monsoon’ or rainy season. But it generally consists of a month or so of off-again on-again cloudbursts, which usually taper off after perhaps a half-hour of torrential rain. Of course, the south of Taiwan is also occasionally treated to massive typhoons.
Naturally, every year’s cycle is different, and when the wheel of fortune hits a heavy rainy season, that year has traditionally featured flooding.
South Taiwan's recent lucky streak came to an end on August 23, when heavy winds and unrelenting torrential rains brought back the bad old days. Homes across the region flooded and three motorcyclists sadly lost their lives when a scaffolding collapsed. Planes diverted or were forced to make unscheduled landings in Kaohsiung. The city cancelled work and classes the following day, and social media and TV news featured non-stop images of damage and suffering.
Considering that Kaohsiung is the largest city in Taiwan by area, with boundaries including low-lying downtown areas near rivers (Yancheng District) as well as thousand-meter high untamed mountain regions (Namaxia and Taoyuan Districts), it is no surprise that flooding is hard to control. Some districts had, or have, become accustomed to it. Residents of some first-floor dwellings splash out NT$200,000 or more for metal, water-tight panel barriers that can stop floods of over 100 centimeters – when they work properly.
Those in mountainous areas such as Qishan, Liugui, Namaxia and Taoyuan are constantly on the lookout for landslides caused by rain-loosened soil and stoically clean up after every hit. Of course, not that many people live in rural areas. It’s when flooding hits Fongshan (with over 400,000 residents, it’s the most populated district of the city), Xiaogang and Daliao (home to many less-than-affluent residents), or even right downtown near the Sanduo Shopping District MRT Station that flooding gets serious attention.
No official proclamation was made, but the war on flooding was sort of declared ‘won.’ Before she was promoted to President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) right-hand aide, former Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) presided over several years during which flooding was minimal to nonexistent. The city, which has the nation’s highest debt, spent some NT$30.3 billion (US$986.2 million) on flood control over Chen Chu’s dozen years in office, with many of the funds going to 15 catchment basins, 13 of which are operational. These large holes serve as parks for dog-walkers and evening exercises during most of the year and then fill up with water overfill during downpours or typhoons.
The catchment basins have been hailed as triumphs. Without them, over these past few weeks of Noah-like rain, many more people would have suffered. But clearly, they were not enough. The city announced last week it was adding three more basins to the originally planned 15 and will step up flood prevention work in any of Kaohsiung’s 38 districts where the problem persists. These measures will include digging channels, fortifying embankments, improving underground pipe systems, and ensuring drains are clear.
Authorities can boast about the recent streak of relatively flood-free years, but it only takes what we have seen over the last days of August 2018 to rekindle the frustrations of many. Homes, cars, scooters, crops, livestock, infrastructure: reading the dollar figures attached to each of the losses is meaningless as ‘XXX million’ or ‘XXX billion’ is hard to wrap one’s head around. Easier to understand is the anger.
President Tsai’s initial visit to a flooded village in Chiayi was immediately panned. Despite getting down into the mud and water later on, she was first filmed arriving in an armored personnel carrier and waving to stricken townsfolk. A few folks waved back; others were significantly less welcoming.
Both Kaohsiung and Tainan were hit hard and both cities are currently under the care of acting mayors as their former heads are now top officials in the Tsai administration. The acting mayors seemed overwhelmed, but neither came in for seriously scathing criticism. Instead, news footage featured residents of both cities putting most of the blame squarely on Chen Chu and William Lai (賴清德), the former Tainan mayor and current Premier.
Thursday, August 23 featured what was admittedly one of the most serious torrential downpours in many a moon. Then, after raining through the weekend and Monday, on Tuesday, August 28, Kaohsiung called a second rain day at 6:12 a.m., a tad too late for those who either don’t follow the city’s LINE account or didn’t check the morning news before leaving home that morning. Luckily, no new deaths in Kaohsiung have thus far been reported, but that may be the only good news.
August 29 was supposed to be the first introduction day for a new school year but worries over flooding saw the Kaohsiung City Government cancel orientation day – but not cancel work, leaving parents the choice of a no-pay holiday or leaving their kids home alone.
Acting Kaohsiung Mayor Hsu Li-ming (許立明) announced an assistance grant of NT$20,000 (US$651) per flooded household, but anyone with rudimentary math skills knows it will take a whole lot more than that to replace the waterlogged contents of an average first floor home, not to mention drowned cars or scooters.
Moving forward, we are just over 80 days away from November's regional elections. Could frustration – not only with water but also with glacier-paced economic growth – push the south away from Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)? Such a scenario would be a major, Trump-like upset, but talking to taxi drivers, office workers and neighbors leads me to not discount it entirely.
“I’m tired. I just want a simple, decent life for me and my family,” a taxi driver told me as he navigated flooded streets to get me to work last week. I pressed him, asking if the accumulated frustration might push him to vote for the Kuomintang (KMT), but he wasn’t ready to commit. “I might not vote at all,” he finally offered. “None of these politicians really care about us ‘normal’ people,” he continued. “What’s the point?”
I heard the same sentiment from younger people, office co-workers, and neighbors.
Premier Lai is still in hot water over his comments regarding Taiwan’s average monthly salary that make him seem extremely out of touch with reality, especially in southern Taiwan, while President Tsai is not faring well over her remarks that seemed to suggest Taiwan’s economy is riding high.
No one I talked to had an opinion on losing allies such as El Salvador, and few mentioned any enthusiasm for the drive to use “Taiwan” at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but everyone had a lot to say about the rain – and the politicians who, in their reactions to the flooding, made decisions that affected millions of lives over the last few weeks.
I’m not willing to predict a November KMT victory in the south (especially as the ‘blues’ seem highly skilled at not capitalizing on political opportunities), but I would be willing to bet that any margin of victory is going to be smaller than anticipated.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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