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Coping with disasters, Yilan style

Syafrizaldi

The Jakarta Post

Yilan, Taiwan  /  Mon, March 4, 2019  /  06:53 pm
Coping with disasters, Yilan style

Yilan Geopark (JP/Syafrizaldi)

In Yilan, Taiwan, natural disasters are part of the local people’s daily lives – so much so that they have developed their own disaster management concepts that they refer to should disaster strike.

Helping the public to prepare for disasters are people like Luen Chang Ho, who wears a dark blue cap and yellow vest over a gray, long-sleeved uniform with dark pants when on duty.

“We’re proud. It’s the official uniform of the Mei-Zhou Community Resilience Task Force while on duty,” said the 61-year old Ho while guiding visitors from Asian countries along the banks of the Yilan River in northern Taiwan.

More than 300 meters of Yilan riverbanks are eco-parks or geo-parks, where tourists can go to enjoy the river’s scenic views. Local people utilize this location as an area for jogging or spending leisure time.

Well known for its fertile lowland, Yilan offers culture and history, culinary and disaster tourism.

“Visitors can enjoy natural beauty while also learning to deal with disasters,” Ho explained.

The Taiwanese government built embankments on both sides of the Yilan River in 1990. They are about 10 meters high and 20 meters wide with asphalt paths and gardens.

Ho stopped at a park with a circular wooden bench and allowed his guests to take a break under the shade after almost 2 kilometers of walking. The view from this spot is much more attractive than the same view across the river, where an industrial zone is located.

At this eco-park, storks are commonly seen feeding and small birds crowd the grassland area, while predatory raptors soar in the sky. The Yilan Bridge enhances the beauty of the 500-hectare area, which is popular among tourists.

Myat, a visitor from Myanmar, enthusiastically listened to Ho’s accounts while taking selfies.

“There have been over 1,000 arrivals since 2014,” Ho said.

According to Ho, flooding of the Yilan River was a regular occurrence.

Every year, typhoons from the Pacific that cycle through the Philippines relentlessly hit Taiwan before proceeding to mainland China.

“There are at least four typhoons annually, especially during summer between July and September,” he said.

When a typhoon hits, landslides often occur as a result, destroying residential homes and causing them to drift away should there be floodwater. Furthermore, strong winds can uproot trees and roads can be inundated in floodwater. In such disasters, children are not allowed to go to school and the local economy comes to a standstill.

“We’ve now learned to get ourselves prepared. Since the construction of the embankments, we’ve formulated three basic concepts, combining the local community’s culture, alertness in the face of disasters and local economic improvements. The community resilience task force was set up only in 2012,” Ho said.

Local culture is the key to successful disaster control as Taiwanese villagers are accustomed to working together among families and religious and professional associations.

“This makes it easier to organize them. We can also distinguish between individual and group interests,” Ho said.

Political interests, Ho continued, should be pushed aside in times of disaster. A recent visit by Yilan Mayor Jiang Congyuan to oversee preparations for an imminent typhoon in early December 2018 showed exactly this, as politics were rarely discussed.

“The mayor even told residents that they shouldn’t concern themselves with the election on Nov. 24, 2018,” said Ho.

Meanwhile, Mei-Zhou Community Resilience Chairperson Wen Long Wu described the task force under Ho as capable of working at any time as demanded, especially when it came to making sure that facilities kept functioning.

The task force routinely trains in the early handling of emergency cases, with a focus on human safety.

“Refresher training to improve the task force’s abilities is important because disasters can occur at any time,” said Wu.

In addition, the task force also trains in conducting evacuations and early alertness activities and preparing emergency facilities.

The task force’s headquarters is equipped with a flood and rainfall observation device that, according to Wu, has glass tubes with rainfall-measuring scales that indicate the alert level.

“Alert level 1 is reached when the water in the tubes is 5 centimeters high, telling the police to immediately block highways so that no residents and vehicles will pass, for fear of falling trees,” said Wu.

Alert level 2 comes when the tube is filled with 10 cm of water and the task force is immediately deployed to inform the public about the situation and direct local residents to nearby hills or buildings.

“We have a community center that also functions as a shelter. Part of Mei-Zhou’s around 6,000 people can be evacuated here,” Wu said.

The three-story community center building features a strong, quake-proof design, equipped with an early warning system. It is also the task force’s disaster information center.

Visitors to the building could watch a documentary film about catastrophes, Wu explained through an interpreter.

Like Myat, Indonesian visitor Elfa Yeni, said it was important for Indonesia to learn from Taiwan about preparing for disasters.

Many buildings in Indonesia were not built to withstand tremors. 

Last year's earthquakes in Lombok on July 29 and Aug. 5, followed by one in Palu on Sept. 28, have shown that Indonesia lacks quake-proof areas. Thousands of lives were claimed in the natural disasters.

“We already experienced a greater calamity in Aceh’s quake and tsunami in 2004, which should have made Indonesians more aware and prepared to face catastrophes,” said Elfa, a lecturer at Abulyatama University in Aceh.

According to Elfa, the most important thing to do to mentally prepare the Indonesian people is to reduce the country’s dependence on aid projects.

“There should be community self-empowerment. Our society has the same assets as the Taiwanese in terms of mutual assistance,” she said. 

Wu said the task force was built from within and even raised its own funds.

“We’re striving to supply all emergency devices like radio communication gadgets, evacuation equipment, medicines and vehicles. The Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation (TAEF) assists us in our relations with external parties,” Wu said.

TAEF executive director Alan Hao Yang said Taiwan, like Indonesia, experienced many natural disasters.

“With global warming and weather instability, climate patterns have changed. In Taiwan, we’re no longer able to determine the seasons based on the traditional calendar system. Typhoon storms can now even prevail any time, to speak nothing of unpredictable earthquakes,” Alan said.

The task force, Alan emphasized, should be present in all places and secure adequate financial resources to enable different kinds of training in disaster alertness, propagation of community awareness, early warning system operations and emergency apparatus applications.

Meanwhile, the TAEF is also committed to promoting comprehensive relations between Taiwan and 10 ASEAN members, six South Asian countries as well as Australia and New Zealand.

“The Mei-Zhou Community Resilience’s three basic concepts should also be developed in other countries,” Alan said. (hdt)