Gatekeeping lessons must be learned from Typhoon Soudelor water outage
The devastation of Wulai due to Typhoon Soudelor remains unconcluded as it enters another stage of events. It is undeniable that the central and local governments must be held responsible for the water contamination caused by the typhoon. However, like most post-disaster reactions, no one is willing to shoulder the responsibility for now.
The worst-hit areas in terms of undrinkable water are in Taipei City and New Taipei City. Citizens usually get their clean, filtered water from two sources, the Feistui Reservoir and the Nanshi River. It was suggested by local media reports that a possible reason for the severe landslides in mountainous areas surrounding the Nanshi River was the over-development of the upstream area, which damaged soil and carried soil-contaminated water into the water plants downstream.
Understanding why the area saw landslides and brought contaminated water into Taipei City and New Taipei City is a priority so as to avoid future incidents. New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu promised to conduct detailed investigations once rescue operations are completed.
However, there is also one important point that no one has addressed yet: the role of the water plant, as it is the downstream gatekeeper that keeps water clean for the city dwellers.
The water plant is responsible for not only processing water, but it can also exercise control over the water supply through its sluice gates. How was the water plant operating during and after the typhoon? It is possible the degree of contamination was so severe that even the sluices could not process the water fast enough. On the other hand, it is also probable that the plants had been operating under normal parameters.
Regardless, there are possible preventative measures that could be carried out in advance of the typhoon and solutions to strengthen the water plant’s role in overseeing a clean water supply. For one, sluices channeling water from the Nanshi River could be temporarily shut down completely, or time of water staying within the water plant could be lengthened, so as to let contaminating materials settle. Clean water could then be released into the city once going through the necessary procedures. On the other hand, increasing the water supply into the downstream water plant from the Feistui Reservoir would be a possible solution as well.
There is also another factor to address. As households hold their water in water tanks after channeling water from the upstream, the recent contamination would damage and pollute these tanks, in turn imposing cleaning costs for the affected citizens. Enterprises conducting water-tank cleaning have already profited, as business boomed alongside with citizens’ demand for clean water.
In an event that was most likely a careless mistake caused by others, should the affected citizens pay for water-tank cleaning costs, or should the government foot the bill under responsibility for its lack of foresight?
It shows that government sectors did not plan ahead, and underestimated the severe damage it would cause in both major northern cities. It is better to be safe than sorry, a concept that the sectors concerned did not seem to heed in this round of typhoonbattering.