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The Landscape of Taiwan
At merely six million years of age, gorgeous Taiwan island is pumping with vigour and potential compared to 4.6-billion-year-old planet earth. Lying 165km off the coast of mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait, it covers 36,000 sq km (roughly the size of the Netherlands), and is 394km long and 144km at its widest. The country includes 15 offshore islands: most important are the Penghu Archipelago, Matsu and Kinmen Islands in the Taiwan Strait, and, off the east coast, Green Island and Lanyu.
Visitors to Taiwan and the surrounding islands can experience a stunningly broad variety of landscapes, from rugged mountains in the centre of the main island (there's even snow in winter at higher altitudes) to low-lying wetlands teeming with wildlife on the western coast, rice paddies and farmland in the south, and lonely windswept beaches punctuated with basalt rock formations on the outer islands. The east coast, with its towering seaside cliffs and rocky volcanic coastline, is utterly spectacular. The Central Cross-Island Hwy and the Southern Cross-Island Hwy link the island from east to west, cutting through spectacular mountain scenery.
However, Taiwan’s colourful – and wild – topography means that the majority of the country’s 23 million people are forced to live on the small expanses of plains to the west of the Central Mountain Range, and this is where agriculture and industry concentrate.
Mountains are the most dominant feature of Taiwan. The island is divided in half by the Central Mountain Range, a series of jagged peaks that stretches for 170km from Suao in the northeast to Eluanbi at the southern tip. Gorges, precipitous valleys and lush forests characterise this very rugged ridge of high mountains.
Running diagonally down the right half of the island like a sash are the country’s four other mountain ranges. The East Coast Mountain Range runs down the east coast of Taiwan from the mouth of the Hualien River in the north to Taitung County in the south. The Xueshan Range lies to the northwest of the Central Mountain Range. Xueshan, the main peak, is 3886m high. Flanking the Central Mountain Range to the southwest is the Yushan Range, home to the eponymous Yushan (Jade Mountain). At 3952m, Yushan is Taiwan’s pinnacle and one of the tallest mountains in northeast Asia. The Alishan Range sits west, separated by the Kaoping River valley.
Rivers & Plains
According to the Taiwanese government’s Council of Agriculture, the country boasts 118 rivers, all originating in the mountains, and it thus appears rather well watered. However, most of Taiwan’s rivers follow short, steep and rapid courses down into the ocean, which causes flooding during typhoon season. During the dry season, on the other hand, the riverbeds are exposed and the reservoirs alone are unable to supply adequate water to the population. An extensive network of canals, ditches and weirs has therefore evolved over time to manage and channel this elusive river flow for irrigation.
The country’s longest river is the 186km Zhuoshui, which starts in Nantou County, flows through the counties of Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi, and serves as the symbolic dividing line between northern and southern Taiwan. It is also the most heavily tapped for hydroelectricity. The Tamsui, which runs through Taipei, is the only navigable stream. Other rivers include the Kaoping, Tsengwen, Tachia and Tatu. Located in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, Sun Moon Lake is the largest body of freshwater in Taiwan and is one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
Fertile plains and basins make up most of western Taiwan, which is criss-crossed with many small rivers that empty into the sea and has the most suitable land for agriculture. Over on the east coast, however, even plains are in short supply. Outside the three cities of Ilan, Hualien and Taitung, the area is among the most sparsely populated on the island.
Taiwan is home to 100 wetlands that have been officially declared ‘nationally important’, with estuaries being the most common form. There are large wetland concentrations in the southwest and southeast of the island; Tsengwen Estuary and Sihcao Wetland, both in Tainan, are classified 'international class' wetlands.
Besides providing a valuable ecosystem that supports a multitude of life forms including insects, amphibians and fish, Taiwan’s wetlands are a precious gift to vast populations of migratory birds. These enamoured, annual visitors stop in Taiwan when migrating from northern areas such as Siberia, Manchuria, Korea and Japan to southern wintering sites in, for instance, the Philippines and Indonesia.
When Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist troops were driven off the mainland, they brought more than just millions of Chinese people fleeing communism with them: they also brought capital, much of which was used to transform a primarily agrarian society into a major industrial powerhouse. Taiwan became wealthy, quickly, but it also became toxic, with urban air quality ranking among the world's worst, and serious pollution in most of its waterways. Indeed, Taiwan's 'economic miracle' came at a serious price, and pollution, urban sprawl and industrial waste have all taken a heavy toll on the island.
Things have improved markedly in the 21st century. Environmental laws, once largely ignored by industry and individuals alike, are now enforced far more rigorously across the board, and the results have been tangible (the Tamsui and Keelung Rivers in Taipei, for example, once horribly befouled, are significantly cleaner in sections). Urban air quality is noticeably better, thanks to a combination of improved public transport, more stringent clean-air laws and a switch to unleaded petrol. The Taiwanese collective unconscious has changed as well: so much of the new 'Taiwanese identity' is tied in with having a clean and green homeland that people are tending to take environmental protection far more seriously.
One of the bigger issues belying the image that the Taiwanese government hopes to project of an environmentally conscious democracy is that of land expropriation – that is, the legal removal of farmers from privately owned lands. Critics said the December 2011 revision of the Land Expropriation Act only served to reinforce the interests of development, which is very loosely defined to cover anything from military construction to projects approved by the executive, over farmers’ rights. Government and industrial proponents of expropriation point to the issue of common good, saying that transforming farmland into industrial areas creates jobs, reducing the country's climbing unemployment rate. However, opponents say that the main beneficiaries are a conglomerate of large corporations and real-estate developers. Although Taiwan's High Speed Rail (HSR) has been touted for making travel around the island even more convenient, many feel that placement of the stations – in the far outskirts of Taiwan's westernmost cities as opposed to in the city centres themselves – has actually promoted both increased traffic and urban sprawl. And, of course, the ongoing issue of decaying barrels of nuclear waste buried on the indigenous island of Lanyu has also yet to be resolved to anybody's satisfaction.
Taiwan's environmental issues are a global concern as well. Despite its diminutive size, Taiwan is a major CO₂ producer. A 2009 study contended that the 4130-megawatt coal-burning Taipower was the biggest CO₂ emitter on the planet. To date, it remains one of the most polluting coal power plants globally. That said, the Taichung City Government has negotiated with Taipower to reduce its carbon emissions in central Taiwan and stabilise air quality in the region
So while it's fair to say that Taiwan has made great strides on the environmental front, it's clear that more remains to be done.
Natural Disasters: Earthquakes, Typhoons & Landslides
Taiwan is in a singular geological and climatic setting. It is highly susceptible to earthquakes and typhoons, while heavy rainfalls exacerbate the risk of landslides.
A fact of life for people living in Taiwan, natural disasters are also something that travellers need to take into account when planning their trip. Aside from the obvious dangers that may arise from being in the vicinity while one is occurring, landslides, typhoons and earthquakes have the potential to actually alter the landscape, rendering once-scenic areas unreachable and roads impassable. Sections of the Central Cross-Island Hwy that once stretched across the middle of the island from Taichung to Hualien remain closed to visitors, while large sections of the Southern Cross-Island Hwy are still impassable after being altered beyond recognition by Typhoon Morakot in 2009.
Geologically, Taiwan is on one of the most complex and active tectonic collision zones on earth. Sitting atop the ever-colliding (albeit slowly colliding) Eurasian and Philippine plates has given Taiwan the beautiful mountains, scenic gorges and amazing hot springs that keep people coming back. Alas, these same geological forces also put the island smack dab in earthquake central, meaning that nary a week goes by without some form of noticeable seismic activity. Most of these quakes are small tremors, only noticed by folks living in the upper storeys of buildings as a gentle, peculiar rocking sensation. Others can be far more nerve-racking to locals and visitors alike.
On 4 March 2010 an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale with an epicentre 362km south of Taiwan's southernmost city caused buildings to tremble as far north as Taipei, knocking out power and rail service for a short time and causing several injuries. The most devastating earthquake to hit Taiwan is remembered locally simply as '9-21' after the date it occurred, 21 September 1999. Measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale, the earthquake collapsed buildings and killed thousands. In February 2016 an earthquake measuring 6.4 on the Richter scale hit the Meinong district of Kaohsiung, leaving 117 dead and 550 injured. Almost all the deaths were caused by a collapsed residential building,
Damage caused by the catastrophic 9-21 earthquake – especially the dramatic collapse of buildings in commercial and residential neighbourhoods – led to the passage of laws requiring that new buildings be designed to withstand future earthquakes of high magnitude.
Common during the summer months in the western Pacific area and the China seas, typhoons are tropical cyclones that form when warm moist air meets low-pressure conditions. Taiwan experiences yearly tropical storms, some of which reach typhoon level. Having better infrastructure than many of its neighbours, Taiwan tends to weather most typhoons fairly well, with the majority resulting in flooding, property damage, delays and headaches – but little loss of life. In August 2009, however, Taiwan found itself in the direct path of Typhoon Morakot. The island was unable to cope with the massive rainfall brought by the typhoon (it delivered over a long weekend what would be about three years’ worth of rain in the UK), which, combined with winds of up to 150km/h, triggered heavy flooding and landslides, especially in the southern counties of Pingtung, Chiayi and Kaohsiung. Nearly 600 people were killed in the disaster.
Although there has been no official consensus on precisely why Morakot was so devastating, many who study local climate and land-use issues in Taiwan factor in poor land management, excessive draining of aquifers and wetlands, and climate change in general as being partially responsible.
According to Dave Petley, one of the world's top landslide specialists, Taiwan is the ‘landslide capital of the world’ because of the high rates of tectonic uplift, weak rocks, steep slopes, frequent earthquakes and extreme rainfall events. But while Taiwan has almost every type of landslide, the number of known ancient rock avalanches remains surprisingly low given the prevailing conditions.