Saturday, 11 May 2013

A Misplaced Taipei Times Euology To Yoichi Hatta

Yesterday, the Taipei Times house editorial responded to a KMT legislator worried about the current rise of nationalist sentiment in Japan, and the popularity of all things Japanese in Taiwan despite Japan having been a colonial occupier:
"The lawmaker said he wondered why a dam built by the Japanese could be praised as a legacy for decades, while Taiwanese turned a blind eye to many other infrastructure projects completed by the Taiwanese government."
The particular dam he had in mind was that of Wushantou reservoir, which I have visited and explored many times and researched in some detail. I think the question is at least partly worthwhile because it is not simply a question of why Wushantou reservoir is still considered praiseworthy (contrary to what was probably a deliberate misinterpretation by the TT editor), but of why similar such praise is not given to reservoirs (or "other infrastructure projects") established by the ROC government.

If the comparison is restricted to other reservoirs, then the question is particularly interesting. For one thing, although Wushantou reservoir was an outstanding achievement by a young Japanese engineer trying out a new dam-core construction technique developed in the U.S., the reservoir was not without its problems - it ran dry several times due to insufficient water supply, despite the fact that Yoichi Hatta had designed and built a complicated diversion system to supplement the Guantian river with water from the Tseng-wen river. Today, this fact appears to be mostly unkown or ignored. It was not until the construction of the Tseng-wen reservoir dam that this problem was largely solved, and this is because Tseng-wen reservoir was built to the single purpose of ensuring a continuous water supply to Wushantou reservoir and thereby the Chianan irrigation system. Although Yoichi Hatta himself may have had early plans to construct a reservoir further upstream on the Tseng-wen river from the diversionary dam he had built for Wushantou, the fact is that this reservoir was not completed until 1973 and was done so under the funding and direction of the ROC government. Moreover, given the scale of the Tseng-wen reservoir dam (it is well over 100 meters tall), and the modern construction methods that were required to build it, it is unlikely Yoichi Hatta would have been able to build a dam to similar specifications in the 1930s.

In short then, although there are perfectly valid reasons to praise Yoichi Hatta and Wushantou reservoir, both he and his legacy are made to look better than they actually are by the efforts of later engineers working for the ROC government. Yet why are the achievements of these engineers overlooked?

Some of the later reservoirs constructed at the direction of the ROC government met with a number of problems. Shihmen reservoir in Taoyuan is perhaps the most obvious example; it lost a considerable percentage of its capacity just months after its completion due to the effects of typhoon Gloria bringing vast volumes of sediment down from the mountains. In fairness to the engineers who worked on Shihmen, they were limited in both their ability to anticipate that and the preventative measures they could have taken. Elsewhere however, there have been successful reservoirs built under the ROC government which do not receive anything like the praise lavished upon Wushantou reservoir; both Yongheshan and Renyitan reservoirs (in Miaoli and Chiayi respectively) are excellent designs that perform very well - both of these reservoirs have an extremely low level of sedimentation (considerably superior to Wushantou) and this is entirely consequent to the way they were designed. However, these reservoirs seem to be unknown on the national scale. Still other reservoirs have had mixed results: Nanhua reservoir in Tainan has also suffered from sedimentation problems following typhoon Morakot, but it's pipeline downhill to the Kaoping river weir inlet nontheless continues to be particularly valuable to Kaohsiung, which, despite having a larger population than Tainan, does not have anything like the water resources Tainan enjoys.

So given the chequered record of Taiwan's reservoirs, much of it owing to the difficulties of managing the effects of the island's geology, it is probably fair to draw two conclusions: (a) that  Yoichi Hatta's legacy has been made to look better than it actually is by both the achievements, and the difficulties faced by later engineers at other reservoirs, and (b) the overlooked achievements of these later engineers are probably due to the warping effect of Taiwan's identity-politics, which are rooted in resentment toward the incoming "mainlanders" after 1945 by the long-time resident "islanders".

This resentment is also, undoubtedly, exacerbated further by the influence of democratic-socialist ideology, which places an a-priori faith in the necessity and righteousness of central planning. The Taipei Times editorial illustrates this perfectly right at the beginning:
 "If there is anything the story of Yoichi Hatta teaches us, it is an everlasting lesson for the government to have a vision for the future..."
It is not the "lesson" that must be learned from Yoichi Hatta's work, and that is because planning a reservoir and irrigation system is one type of problem, the solution to which must be governed by an understanding of the laws of nature, whereas planning a healthcare or education system (for example) is an entirely different type of problem that concerns the formation and dissolution of human values. Yoichi Hatta's work should be praised because of the problem it (largely) solved, and his legacy ought to be understood as an example of what civil engineers can hope to aspire to, and of their critical importance to civilization, irrespective of whether they are working for a government agency, a corporation or an informal association of the poorest peasant farmers.

To read Hatta's legacy as a euology to socialist central planning is simply stupid, and it was only done for the sake of yet another riposte in Taiwan's interminable game of "mainlander vs islander".



I should add that the Taipei Times editorial makes much of the claim that Yoichi Hatta was considerate and benevolent toward his workers, and that this is also partly why he and his work is praised. Whether the engineers working at the direction of the ROC government in other reservoir projects also showed a similar attitude toward their workers is left unremarked upon. At any rate, the editorial seems to conflate the two claims: that Yoichi Hatta was a nice man, and that the government must embrace socialist central planning. The first claim may be valid, but the second is not.

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