As extreme rainfall events increase, it is only a matter of time before 130,000 illegal factories wreak environmental havoc in a country where waste is dumped along rivers and in mountains.

  • Michael Turton / Contributing Reporter

The famous horror writer Stephen King once observed that post-apocalypse novels are essentially impossible. If human civilization disappears, nuclear power plants will melt down, and chemical plants, pipelines, and other infrastructure will poison the earth. An organized life would be impossible. Could it happen here?

This year, the Taiwan Climate Change Projection Information and Adaptation Knowledge Platform (TCCIP), supported by the Ministry of Science and Technology, produced a 10-year assessment of local climate research: Taiwan Climate Change Projection Information and Adaptation Knowledge Platform: A Decade of Climate Research.

The platform and numerous climate-related policies were spurred by the catastrophic Morakot cyclone in 2009. The catastrophic rains triggered floods and landslides in southern Taiwan, killing more than 600 people and inundating dozens of cities with flash floods and mudslides. Belatedly, government agencies began to move slowly to respond to the threat.

Photo: Tsai Ching-hua, Taipei Times


In 2013, after regular meetings and discussions, the government formulated the 2013 National Adaptation Strategy. It was a five-year plan with 399 proposed measures. The second plan ended in 2018, and the nation is currently completing the third iteration of the program, the 2018-2022 plan.

The government has drafted a number of pieces of legislation related to this initiative, including the spatial planning act (2016), the wetlands protection act (2013) and the coastal zone management act (2016).

Image courtesy of the reader

It looks neat, clean, progressive and organized. So it’s interesting to compare this to a recent report by Taiwan Plus that there are likely more than 400 illegal factories in farmlands in Yilan. The Yilan government claimed in the report that it did not have the manpower to inspect them.

Let’s put this comment in perspective: When a friend in Taitung County replaced the roof over his balcony, the government was there within days, referring to satellite photos of the new structure. This happened to another friend who simply hung a giant tarp over his outdoor dining table to protect him from the sun. After running out to see what new “establishment” he had set up, the bureaucrats had to return home disappointed.

The government monitors Taiwan’s land use through satellites. In fact, in 2017, it released a report that found more than 50,000 illegal factories on farmland as a result of satellite surveys designed to support the government’s land-use zoning programs under the 2016 spatial planning act. In the 2020 report of the Ministry of Agriculture, 130,000 such factories were mentioned.

Image courtesy of EPA

And not all small mom-and-pop operations of these firms churn out cheap plastic crap. Some of them are companies listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange with revenues of tens of millions. In 2019, the owners of these factories even formed a lobby group called Tian Yuan (田園) to fight environmental efforts to eliminate them.

Crucial to Taiwan’s land speculation ecology, these factories are crucial to other ecologies. Their waste, occasionally the subject of bitter local complaints and inconclusive media coverage, is often dumped in riversides and mountainsides by a network of companies that dispose of untreated waste to make money.

Floods and pollution

According to the TCCIP report, it is not easy to model what will happen to Taiwan. Most climate models lack resolution at the smaller scale of Taiwan. But most models show an extreme increase in precipitation, which will result in massive sediment discharges into major rivers, along with an increase in landslide disasters in the highlands.

Widespread flooding will result: As rivers fill with sediment, their beds rise, meaning they hold less water even if water levels rise from extreme rainfall events.

Simulation studies of Taiwan’s river basins show how bad things will get. Kaohsiung’s Kaoping River (高屏溪) basin was assessed in a 2016 article in the journal Natural Hazards.

The reason for choosing the Kaoping River was that climate models indicated that precipitation would increase in the south, particularly in the Kaoping River Basin. The study used the SOBEK model, officially used by the Water Resources Agency, to simulate floods that will occur regularly by the end of the century.

If the reader imagines this to be a long time from now, remember that climate models are quite conservative, that climate problems are coming faster than the models now predict, and that the problem will be evident by mid-century, just a quarter of a century from now. from now on. Indeed, the most recent risk maps created in the TCCIP document above show that the Kaoping Basin is comprised of red and yellow townships for risk by mid-century.

In models published in the journal Natural Hazards, the sediment raises the river bed by 1.24 meters, resulting in flooding along the river during heavy rains. Daliao District (大寮) in Kaohsiung will experience the worst flooding, but everywhere will be bad, worse than Morakot. And this will happen many times.

The Kaoping River area, like many other flood-prone areas, is lined with factories, illegal and legal. Hsinyuan Township (新園), where the river meets the sea in Pingtung County, is the ancient epicenter of illegal dumping of sludge-laden waste from surrounding factories decades ago.

But the Kaoping River basin as a whole is an ecological disaster. According to a 2020 Commonwealth Journal article in Kanding Township (崁頂) near Hsinyuan (“The ‘Ghost’ Shadowing Taiwan’s Industrial Polluters,” July 2020), fields are strewn with aluminum slag bags that leak aluminum waste. The water and sediment from those farms eventually flows into the Kaoping River or the nearby ocean.

The article notes that fishponds, many of which are located along rivers, are routinely rented by waste disposal firms, which fill them with waste, cover them with concrete and then build prefabricated buildings that they rent out as factories or cover them with solar panels. .

Consider Daliao, which could expect the worst of the flood. It is home to an industrial zone, the Kaohsiung City Dump, and countless factories. It is also the location of a former military base. The city is full of interesting toxic waste.

Every factory and waste disposal site in Taiwan is a ticking time bomb, but the ticking clock in Kaoping Basin is closest to zero. During heavy rainfall, the mud will not only be dangerous but also toxic, and floods will spread it over the basin’s farmlands and low-lying settlements. It should be noted that many areas of Pingtung County, especially along the ocean, are below sea level due to excessive use of groundwater.

Another problem with increased sedimentation is reservoirs in the south. The Zengwen Reservoir (曾文水庫), which irrigates Chiayi and the Tainan Plain, was already suffering from siltation when Morakot struck 13 percent of its capacity. Disasters like these will be a regular feature of our future, as will alternating droughts (which also increase siltation) and extreme rainfall.

A key factor in addressing these issues is reforming Taiwan’s land system to accommodate factories. The factory owners gather in the fields, the land in the industrial districts remains uncultivated. Local governments are collapsing and eagerly collecting taxes from illegal factories.

All this must change. Because there is no post-apocalypse.

Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides informed commentary on his three decades living in and writing about his adopted country. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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