Friday, September 4, 2009

Help flows in for Typhoon Morakot's relief work

When Typhoon Morakot hit Taiwan on August 9th, the government was expecting the medium strength typhoon to bring enough rain to finally relieve the island’s most severe drought in the last seven years. Little did the Central Weather Bureau know that the typhoon would devastate the rugged terrain in southern Taiwan with a year’s worth of rain falling in just three days. In total, 26 percent of the island was flooded by over six and half feet of accumulated rainfall.

In an instant, the mudslides caused by the typhoon buried the 500-person village of Shiaolin, Kaohsiung County, leaving only 51 survivors. A total of eight mountainous areas in southern Taiwan were cut off as roads and bridges were either washed away or buried. Due to the continued bad weather, military helicopters had difficulty in the timely rescue of the flood survivors. The government mobilized over 160,000 military, police and civilians to extricate a total of 39,000 trapped people in the ten days that followed. Typhoon Morakot claimed at least 650 lives in Taiwan.

Kaohsiung, Pingtung and Tainan Counties in the south suffered the greatest damage with an estimated loss of NT$15.8 billion (US$486 million) from agricultural products. According to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Morakot caused a total property loss of NT$110 billion (US$3.38 billion) to the island. The typhoon also created several records - the worst flooding in Taiwan in half a century and the biggest natural disaster in a decade after the 1999 7.3-magnitude earthquake in central Taiwan which claimed over 2,400 lives.

Government passes US$3.7 billion reconstruction bill

President Ma Ying-jeou visited the disaster area several times, asking the Executive Yuan to actively supervise the rescue and relief efforts, relocation of flood victims and reconstruction of the disaster areas. He also promised to set up a disaster relief agency to carry out relief work. The Executive Yuan approved a bill allocating a NT$100 billion (US$3 billion) budget over three years for the reconstruction of disaster-hit areas. While the bill was under discussion at the Legislative Yuan, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers suggested an increase in funds to NT$200 billion (US$6 billion). In a final compromise, the Legislative Yuan passed the reconstruction bill with a budget limit of not over NT$120 billion (US$3.7 billion) on August 28th.

In the light of Typhoon Morakot’s destruction, Taiwan’s annual GDP in 2009 will be adjusted downward from the expected negative 4.25 percent. However, Professor Ray Dawn of the Taipei-based China University of Technology and Dr. Steven Yang of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research stressed it is still too early to know the storm’s true impact on Taiwan’s economy, according to the Liberty Times. They noted with the US economy on the mend and the impacted area’s agriculture and tourism only accounting for a small proportion of the island's GDP, existing forecasts might still be on track. Besides, Taiwan’s economic growth depends far more on foreign trade than domestic activity.

Human factors contributed to tragedy

The majority of victims living in stranded mountainous areas come from Taiwan’s aboriginal communities. There are 490,000 aborigines in Taiwan, representing about 2 percent of the total population. Because of employment difficulties in metropolitan areas, many aborigines farm or run bed and breakfast businesses in remote mountain areas. Although the disaster was a force of nature, human induced factors contributed as well. According to the United Daily News, with the government’s encouragement, aborigines started logging in mountains, growing betel nut palms, tea trees, alpinia or fruit trees, pumping ground water, building home stays and warm spring hostels on the hills some 20 years ago, causing erosion to the natural environment and other ecological damage. Criticism attributed the blame to all these factors, worsening mudslides and flooding brought on by typhoons, the paper said.

Environmental experts have suggested that the government should help with the relocation of aboriginal villagers, providing them with retraining, and at the same time commence a massive tree planting effort on their farmland. The Liberty Times reported that the government plans to invite private companies to engage in construction work on public land in disaster-hit areas to rebuild communities and restore Taiwan’s unique aborigine tribal culture.

Help pours in

Other non-government organizations (Tzu Chi Foundation, the Red Cross, World Vision and other temples and churches) have stepped in to help. They rushed their volunteers to remote disaster areas despite the adverse conditions. According to the United Daily News, newly popular internet social networking media like Twitter and Plurk played an important role in helping the government determine the disaster situation. As of Sept. 2nd, the Interior Ministry and 36 NGO accounts have received disaster relief donations of NT$13.1 billion (US$399 million) from home and abroad.

Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, visited Taiwan on August 30th for a six-day tour and comforted survivors in the worst hit areas. The United Daily News reported that he came at the invitation of seven DPP city mayors and county magistrates in southern Taiwan. This was a humanitarian trip, and he was not due to meet President Ma or other central government officials prior to his departure on Sept 4th. The Dalai Lama has been to Taiwan twice before to meet former presidents Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry has expressed its appreciation to the 85 nations (including the US, Japan, China, and European Union nations) and international organizations (such as the United Nations and the International Red Cross) for their kind offers of rescue assistance, relief materials and financial help. The US dispatched its aircraft carrier USS Denver to carry relief materials, with its helicopters flying rescue missions and heavy duty machinery into disaster areas. This is the first time since the break of diplomatic ties in 1979 that American military aircraft have come to Taiwan.

Soon after the typhoon left parts of the island devastated, fundraising took place in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing raising CNY300 million (US$44 million) worth of relief materials, according to the Taipei-based China Times. On Aug 20th, Shanghai Dragon TV held another big fundraising telethon in conjunction with the leading television stations in five Chinese provinces to collect CNY$310 million (US$45 million). So far the total disaster relief donated from China has reached CNY$610 million (US$89 million). As a comparison, Taiwan’s government and civilians were equally generous during last year’s Sichuan earthquake, donating NT$4.5 billion (US$138 million), the largest donation to earthquake relief outside of China.

Criticized for the government’s slow response, President Ma has made several apologies to the disaster victims for “not working fast enough and not good enough.” The Apple Daily commented, with the central government based in the north, Ma must try harder to stay in tune with his constituents in the south as well. As a result, Ma promised to reshuffle his cabinet by mid-September and those officials found lacking will be replaced. He hopes to do this soon so it will not impact upcoming local elections for city mayors and magistrates scheduled for December.

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.