OPINION: Time for Kaohsiung to Wage War against Pollution

OPINION: Time for Kaohsiung to Wage War against Pollution
Photo Credit:Cudown CC BY SA 2.0

What you need to know

Taiwan's southern city needs to change it's culture of helplessness.

A man rides by on a 50cc scooter built sometime in the 1990s. The ancient moped billows toxic fumes as two officers on modern police scooters appear not to notice. Luckily for the elderly moped rider, he's wearing a face mask.

A woman struggles to put her decrepit Nissan Homer (a kind of van) into second gear as the three-decade-old motor coughs up a black cloud with enough poison for a few tumors.

Meanwhile, police officers standing near their new-model "green" squad car are fixated on catching a guy not wearing a helmet so they can fine him an entire NT$500 (US$17)!

Call me callous, but I'll trade that dude's head for my daughter's lungs.

Kaohsiung City has been hit with winter air pollution for a very long time, a fact many have simply come to accept. But the smog has begun to set in earlier and earlier over the past few years, making people wonder why August looks like January. Winter's arrival has only added grey clouds to our Victorian-era skies.

"Seasonal wind patterns, pollution from China, lack of typhoons, and local factors," have been offered as excuses and the government has offered evidence for each of their assertions.

Fine. Agreed. Some external issues cannot be controlled. But instead of telling me why it's this way, tell me what you're doing about it.

"We made the MRT and buses free till late February!" might be the reply of the Kaohsiung government, and it's true: At a reported cost of NT$200 million, the city made rush-hour traffic on the KMRT system free for iPass users and offered free rides on many bus routes.

Dec. 1 was the free ride kick-off day, and about 3,000 more people than usual used the system, said KMRT officials.

But the day of the "free rides" announcement, I decided to do some old-school journalism and ask 30 strangers passing by the Formosa Boulevard KMRT Station if the free ride offer was tempting.

All but one said no. The one person who did give it a thumbs-up uses the MRT on a daily basis. For her, the plan was awesome.

With just two lines, the Kaohsiung MRT is useful to a select few. Feeder buses to stations do exist, but they are still so infrequent and slow that a significant number of local residents opt for scooters. Put it this way: it would take me at least an hour to use public transport to travel the 7 kilometers from my home to my downtown office. I can make the same trip in 15 minutes by motorcycle or 20 minutes by bicycle.

Do we start cleaning up the air by encouraging ordinary people to elongate their commutes? I vote no.

When dengue fever strikes Kaohsiung, which it does regularly, the city goes into combat mode. Armies of sprayers fan out, upending containers of stagnant water, clearing gutters and fining people for violations such as leaving an old tire full of water lying around. Why no such attack on air pollution?

Note that I am not commenting on the biggest polluters in southern Taiwan, state-run or state-sponsored factories. Steel, petroleum, heavy and light industry – Kaohsiung has them all. But convincing China Steel, for example, to cut production to improve air quality is a daunting task that could take some time.

So why not tackle the things we can?

We already have laws. Old scooters are not supposed to be on the roads and toxic engines are covered by regulations. Let's not forget about "ghost money" or whatever you wish to call that noxious cloud that creates new ghosts by giving people cancer in a bizarre circle of death. Laws are on the books, but the hell money still burns.

While there are plenty of temples in my neighborhood, they are the good guys — sort of. Several of the temples use burners with chimneys and filters which allegedly remove some of the carcinogens, but every other family in the neighborhood burns Disney-sized cauldrons of hell money seemingly at random, with the fumes entering my fifth floor window and into my two young daughters' lungs at virtually any hour of the day or night. Obviously, not all Kaohsiung neighborhoods are quite so "tolerant," but enough of them are to make a difference.

We still must talk about the big things: domestic pollution laws and their enforcement as well as mitigating pollution from abroad, but the broken windows theory that suggests outward signs of negligence will reinforce and replicate such behaviors can't be ignored. Watching that tortured 50cc scooter pump death into the air, if nothing else, looks bad for Kaohsiung.

It's true that neither the old scooter nor the daily burnt offerings are the main culprits in the PM2.5 crisis, but Kaohsiung authorities need to move to a war footing on air pollution. In times of war you make the most progress with the resources you have. A few free rides on the MRT is nice, but the move isn't aggressive enough.

Kaohsiung needs to get whatever boots on the ground it can, start with the “broken windows,” and break out this cycle of learned helplessness.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston