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Groundwater Pumping Can Sink HSR!

The Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR) project only a few years old is now at risk because of subsidence

Jun 22, 2011


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Groundwater Pumping Can Sink HSR!

Note the article below in which the Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR) project only a few years old is now at risk because of subsidence.  We are subject to the same problem here in the San Joaquin Valley since we overdraft our underground aquifers, and HSR seems determined to go through farm land. Perhaps, the environmentalists will now allow us to keep enough of our surface water to ensure that the High Speed Train can operate smoothly. Don't hold your breath.  It's more likely they would lobby the government to stop farming altogether.  Does anyone still wonder why the state of California is broke? 

Taiwan's fast rail saviour offers unpleasant buffer
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - When private investors spend the equivalent of 4% of their country's gross domestic product (GDP) on one infrastructure project, they might have in mind making money for many decades. In the case of Taiwan High Speed Rail, the days of the US$18 billion mammoth facility already seem counted, merely four years after its inauguration.

Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) is sinking. Along its tracks, groundwater is pumped out of thousands of wells, causing the land to subside. Not only does the system, which is as top-notch as its Japanese and European counterparts, face collapse, but there's no way to reverse the phenomenon.

The culprits were singled out years ago. They are the government itself, water supply companies, irrigation associations, factories, as well as lone farmers. Some pump legally, most of them illegally. Local governments are also to blame having been reluctant to enforce the law in fear of losing voters.

Last year alone, THSR's tracks sank in certain spots by between 5.7 centimeters (2.2 inches) and 6.8cm. The figures turn more glaringly bad when added up. No one sitting on a Taiwanese bullet train running at 300 kilometers an hour wants to know that the land carrying the high-speed rail's concrete viaducts is now as much as 70cm lower than it was in 2002 when work began.

THSR is for the present getting by with occasional height adjustments. The initially privately owned company, which had its board taken over by the Taiwanese government in 2009 due to financial difficulties, assures the public that trains and tracks are still safe.

The scale of the problem was only recently thrust fully into the spotlight. Earlier this year, a road project serving a new THSR station was called off because of safety concerns. On June 14, Public Construction Commission (PCC) Minister Lee Hong-yuan made a declaration that profoundly shocked the island.

"Underground water and land subsidence issues are cutting short the life span of the high-speed railway to no more than 10 years," Lee said, after inspecting a section of the THSR.

Since his explosive statement, the previously little known minister Lee has become omnipresent on Taiwan's TV screens and in newspapers. Closure of the THSR would leave an ugly mark on Taiwan's economic growth rate. The rail line links the island's north and south, while running right through its industrial heartland, carrying 100,000 passengers a day. As soon as THSR began operations in 2007, many passengers switched from airlines flying parallel routes. Road users also switched to rail, and the island's transportation system would be having a hard time coping without THSR.

In an exclusive interview with Asia Times Online on June 17, Lee underlined the immensity of the problem.

"Within 10 years, the high-speed rail would either have to shut down or make a detour if we fail to get land subsidence under control. Because it's our major north-south artery, this is something Taiwan cannot afford under any circumstances. If THSR is in trouble, Taiwan is in trouble," Lee said.

"The phenomenon has been known for a very long, but in the past, nobody took it seriously. There was no dialogue, no inter-agency cooperation, and the matter involved at least five of the government's ministries and 10 of its bureaus," he said.

Lee, assigned by Premier Wu Den-yih earlier this year to organize a task force, is expected to come up with an "action plan" next month, recommending how many wells should be shut down in what period of time, among other measures.

In the interview, Lee expressed his confidence that with help of his action plan, the land subsidence problem will be solved in a timely manner.

"Irrigation associations have to shut down at least 50% of their wells and upgrade their technology. Weak law enforcement won't be an issue because the depth of illegal wells doesn't exceed 40 meters, meaning they have nothing to do with land subsidence. As almost all wells that go deeper than 100 meters belong to the government, it will be easy for us to shut them down," Lee said, subsequently mentioning a timeline of four years.

He then expounded how his action plan not only will prevent THSR from ending up as Taiwan's by far most gigantic industrial ruin, but even would make the locals richer.

"As some areas are 3 meters below sea level, they are flooded once a month, meaning they are almost valueless. If we solve the land subsidence problem, the value of houses and land there will be raised significantly to the benefit of their owners."

One undertaking Lee has in mind, however, will certainly not be to everyone's liking. When dealing with farmers, factories and homeowners, it all eventually comes down to the right amount of compensation, flood control measures and alternative water supply sources. More contentious is his plan to limit the weight of buildings and structures alongside the THSR tracks, which is bound to mess up development plans of THSR itself as well as those of private land developers.

The THSR project's hallmark feature has been that stations are built on rural farmland without integration with existing urban transportation systems; handsome profits can then be made developing the areas around the stations. Lee's unprecedented plan is certain to be cause for conflict.

Hu Sheng-Cheng of Taipei's Academia Sinica's Institute of Economics agrees with Minister Lee that there is ample reason to expect a happy ending, as least in regard to the land subsidence and threat of collapse of Taiwan High Speed Rail.

"If the government can learn from its mistakes and adopt immediate measures by closing deep wells, neither THSR, nor the property market, nor the economy will suffer significantly”, Hu told Asia Times Online. "If the problem of land subsidence is completely solved, the local economy can even be encouraged."

Even so, implying a lack of rigor by the authorities was not far from being the crux of the matter to begin with, Hu cautioned that all measures had to implemented with the utmost determination.

"Because otherwise, I am afraid Taiwan High Speed Rail will have to make its money as a roller coaster," Hu said.

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.


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