2009 / 9月
Laura Li /tr. by Scott Williams
In 2003, Europe experienced an excep-tionally intense heat wave that caught elderly persons in homes without air conditioning by surprise and led to an estimated 27,000 deaths.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina took 1,836 lives in the United States. But the passing of the storm marked only the beginning of the human disaster. Robbery, looting, and rape turned beautiful, jazzy New Orleans into a hell on earth.
Recent years have seen a multiyear drought in Australia and major blizzards in China. The typhoon that struck Myanmar in 2008 killed 130,000. Myanmar has a relatively mild climate, and the typhoon's landfall was an almost unprecedented event.
Those of us in Taiwan have been aware of global warming, climate change, and the steady stream of disasters striking others for some time, but have nonetheless always believed, albeit unconsciously, that ours was a charmed island. Taiwan was admittedly very fortunate to have suffered only 2,000-some fatalities in the Chi Chi Earthquake of 1999, far fewer than the 6,000-plus caused by the less intense Kobe Earthquake.
But this was different. This time, we couldn't just shrug off climate change as somebody else's problem. Typhoon Morakot dropped 2,855 millimeters of rain on our island over a four-day period, an amount far beyond our 200-year-event standard for flood control and which ranks in the top four most extreme amounts of rainfall in recorded meteorological history.
In recent years, increasing numbers of typhoons have struck Taiwan. In fact, their numbers have risen from an historical average of about 3.5 per year to about seven per year since 2000. The storms have also tended to follow one another closely, making them even more destructive. Typhoon Morakot, for example, was the eighth typhoon of the season and wedged into a low-pressure trough between the year's seventh and ninth typhoons, which slowed it down and allowed it to dump huge amounts of rain on Taiwan.
Global warming and shrinking ice sheets are raising sea levels in Taiwan's vicinity by an average of 2.5 mm per year (about double the global average), while southwestern Taiwan is subsiding at a rate of about 7.9 mm per year. When you add the numbers together, the notions that Morakot was a fluke and that the typhoon seasons of the future will revert to pattern seem unlikely.
As the threat of natural disasters multiplies, human beings suffer. In recent years, efforts to restore our nation's land have still been based on some outdated ideas. Will the more than 600 Taiwanese deaths from Typhoon Morakot finally awaken us all to the uncertainty of our collective fate?
I say "us all" because we are all a part of this. For all that we may spend today delivering food to disaster victims, if we spend tomorrow at an illegal hot-spring spa or buying cabbages grown on fragile, overexploited slopelands, we're perpetuating the long-term problem.
In Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond looks at the collapse of some of the world's great civilizations, and identifies contributing factors that include ecological destruction, climate change, powerful neighbors, loss of allies, and, most importantly, the failure to adapt.
Diamond argues that civilizations likely lose the ability to make decisions and adapt for several reasons: first, out of an inability to visualize the future when disaster looms nigh, and, second, out of an inability to comprehend the situation once the disaster has emerged. He also discusses civilizations that recognize the problem but are unable to find a solution, and others that fail in spite of everyone's best efforts.
His list of civilizations that failed include those of the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, and the Vikings. While most of us won't see it in our lifetimes, it is likely that the fruits of all our own hard work will ultimately turn to dust.
Typhoon Morakot has certainly awakened Taiwan to the problem. Now that we're working on a solution, the question becomes whether we can find one in time. To do so, we will need even greater determination and better courses of action. Let's pray that the unfortunate loss of these 600 Taiwanese turns out to have been an alarm bell rather than the death knell of our society.