The steps up to the ridgeline are mossy and steep, crisscrossing through muddy fields of large, pale green cabbages, red chiles, and slender eggplants. Red cheeked and wheezing, I stop to catch my breath beneath the dappled shade of the palm ferns scattered throughout the hillside farms and terraces. The city is almost in full view, the blue grey buildings bathed in a foggy mystery, like a futuristic landscape painting peeking through the vibrant green forests pulsating in the wind. My parents are impatient, waiting for me to push my soft round body up the last few steps of the trail. I manage, gasping, the tightness in my chest doubling my efforts. I struggle with every step, fighting back emotional meltdowns as I go, my heavy 9-year-old body sweating profusely, my lungs wheezing like wild animal songs. At the ridgeline, I take in the full glory of the shady tree ferns and voracious vines, thankful that they mark the gradual descent ahead. Cabbage butterflies move through the sunlit patches like leaves suspended midair and a stray dog stirs in the bushes. I walk home past the familiar landmarks, sweating and still wheezing; the pile of a hundred tires, a broken-down truck, the butterfly ginger stands, scraps of woven plastic sandbag materials sticking up from the clay heavy earth. Orb weavers spin their webs through time and space as I inhale the sweet verdant aroma of unruly green growth through tight lungs. Beyond the gentle slopes of the mountain, the city stands unwavering, small towers of concrete and pink tile simmer in clouds of grey haze.
I don’t remember when I learned I was asthmatic. My slow, labored movements and excruciating efforts during physical activity were always just attested to my overweight body. I saw other kids wheezing their way through gym class, all of us deemed unathletic and lazy rather than our perhaps shared diagnosis: childhood asthma. Dissociating into the warm grey sky, I’d fill my lungs with labored breaths. I remember the taste of that air; burning leaves, Osmanthus flowers, food grease, exhaust from gravel trucks so rich that the undersides of highways always bore a thick layer of charcoal colored dust. To this day, the smell of grease and soot tumbled through undertones of fertile earth and verdant greenery brings me home. Taiwan was a different place then, the heavy air and murky waterways steeped in the trauma of uncontrolled resource extraction and rapid industrialization.
Taiwan’s industrial smog was born in the era of oppressive Japanese colonial rule that gripped the island in 1898. The Japanese recognized the riches present on the island: gold, sulfur, coal, camphor, old growth forests, abundant fish, fertile fields, ceramic clay deposits, oil and gas, copper, limestone, and skilled craftsmen and laborers. A process of rapid modernization and resource extraction washed over the island, and the mining and forestry industry began to boom. Japan installed an extensive railway system in their new colony, and with this came the beginnings of a thick, grey, industrial haze alongside dark locomotive smoke that was to slowly blanket the island for the next century. In the mid-20th century, Japan surrendered their treasure island at the end of WWII, and after a brief moment of independence, it was annexed by the Republic of China, a Chinese military and political party fleeing from the Communist rule quickly overtaking mainland China, declaring martial law of the island. Continuing in the footsteps of their colonialist predecessors, the Republic of China, also known as the KMT party, increased resource extraction and pushed for rapid industrialization and modernization (Seyla 1977). From the 1960s-1990s, Taiwan’s air pollution increased dramatically due to the growing number of industries on the island (Chow 1983). Until the lifting of martial law in 1987, the island endured thirty years of regulation free industrial expansion and the consequential high-level pollution (Grano 2015) associated with environmental disregard in the name of the dollar. In the early 1980’s, much of the larger cities had a TSP range of 200-300 uµ/m2, and rural, mountainous areas had air quality readings averaging around 150 µg/m2 (Chow 1983). Air analysis reports the presence of Sulphur dioxide, Nitrogen Monoxide, Hydrogen Sulfide, Carbon Monoxide, and Ozone, all of which are associated with human respiratory health complications. The presence of these pollutants was traced to the rapid construction boom that demolished traditional buildings in favor of lifeless concrete apartment blocks, suspending particulates into the air, the non-existence of vehicular emissions regulations, and most dramatically, entirely unregulated production plants, steel mills, and utility power plants. In addition, incomplete oil combustion from home and business furnaces and boilers were common, as were reports of thick black smoke pouring out of heating units into the air. (Chow 1983). Today’s skies see better air quality on the island; however, new challenges have risen Mainland China, with their aggressive industrialization efforts and infrastructure projects have created some of the most dangerous air quality indexes on the planet, often with AQIs ranging from 700-800ppm, and wind currents often carry this air over the strait to the island (Everington, 2020).
It’s no wonder that the children of Taipei often wheezed through gym class. During the peak of industrialization, epidemiological surveys from 1974-1985 indicated that prevalence of childhood asthma increased almost 4% during this time (Hsieh, 1988). Rates of childhood asthma increased until standardized regulations, air quality control, and pollution awareness became widespread in the mid 1990’s. Air pollution is also associated with higher rates of lung cancer, cardio vascular diseases, respiratory infections, and underperforming respiratory systems (Ko 1996). From 2001-2012, childhood asthma was reported to be on the decline across multiple regions surveyed in in Taiwan (Kuo, 2020). My childhood in the late 80s and early 90s coincided with the peak of poor air quality on the island.
To mitigate my asthma, I swam. The regular breathing intervals and soothing presence of water had a calming effect on my lungs and slowly gave them strength. I took notice of water everywhere. The reflecting pools of the rice paddies, the sulphury hot springs erupting in billowing steam from encrusted fissures in the ground, the water rushing through the open sewer system of the city, transporting juice boxes downstream, plastic bags caught in algae encapsulated twigs. I begged to see the ocean, shores awash with stinky seaweed and amusing plastic treasure, lone sandals, crab shells, glass buoys, and the boggy shores surrounding the mountain lakes brimming with calla lilies. The torrential plum blossom rains, signaling the ripeness of spring cherries, also soaking Sulfur Dioxide, or acid raid, across the glistening fruits of the island and into the many streams that rushed towards their main northern artery, the Tam Shui River. One particular bend in the Tam Shui etched itself into my brain. A lonely, lazy bend, shoreline still intact with lush thick greenery, egrets hunting, birds perched in the trees, cabbage butterflies floating by. I’d see it every day as the bus taking me to school sped along a highway interchange where five other highways crossed each other. If you were to stand mid river, the sky would be a tangle of concrete, that thick black smoke coating all surfaces. Plastic bags floated downstream, the egrets gently sidestepping them, continuing on their way. From the egrets I learned a resilience steeped in sorrow, the Daoist lesson of the stone in the stream.
The murky, polluted waters of the Tam Shui river can be traced back to unregulated dumping of raw sewage and industrial wastes, along with agricultural runoffs. A common rumor when I was a kid in the 90s was that if you fell into the river, you’d develop an immediate rash and have to have your stomach pumped. People still pulled fish from the garbage-lined river to eat and sell at market, and I’m sure some of those fish ended up on my dinner plate at some point. A recent analysis identified contemporary river pollutants across 14 major rivers in different regions of Taiwan. While the Tam Shui was not the most polluted (the Erren river took this title, reporting 72% of its pollutants from industrial sources), it still reported hazardously high levels of heavy metals such as lead, manganese, copper, and raw sewage (Putri 2018), all of which directly threaten human and ecological health (Grano 2015). An analysis done in the 1991 showed major river pollutants to be 65% untreated household waste water, 18% industrial, 14% animal farm waste, and 3% garbage leachate (Mindich, 1991). While the household waste water was a matter of infrastructure development, the agricultural and industrial waste water had heavy political weight behind them. To impose restrictions and regulations on the industries would pinch the belts of pig farmers and industrial manufacturers, both of which were heavily driving the economy of the time. The murk of the river was not just the rich sediments of the alluvial plane, but toxic waste swirling through a political landscape focused on growth in the wake of decades of poverty and injustices. Today, 44% of Taiwan’s tap water also contain microplastics, which have also been observed in sea waters and shellfish. Sources of these plastics were traced through composition analysis to plastic objects such as plastic bags, straws, fishing nets, and bottle caps (Everington 2018). While the island’s EPA minister emphasizes this is due to public lifestyle and consumption habits, it is also at the fault of the industry that continues to provide cheap available plastics to the public and government regulations allowing these plastic objects to remain in everyday use. Regulations have improved across the island, but there are still loopholes available to the petrochemical and semiconductor industries, both of which refer to Taiwan as their industrial “safe haven” (Grano 2015). Harbor areas, especially in the southern largest city Kaohsiung, suffer the worst from these pollutants. Environmental movements have sprung up across the country to defend the landscape and its inhabitants, both rural and urban. Groups such as ‘Taiwan Rural Front’ provide education and legal support to rural residents disproportionately affected by some of these polluting industries and less able to work towards environmental justice alone (Grano 2015), but there are still many left voiceless. Today many areas of Taiwan grapple with the petrochemical and plastic manufacturing industries economic power displacing environmental and public health concerns. The longer industrial production continues, the deeper these environmental toxins accumulate, impacting the biodiversity of the island and thereby weakening ecosystem resilience. And although around 30% of Taiwan’s lands are protected in national parks or preserves, environmental contamination knows no boundaries.
One critically endangered species impacted by water pollution is the landlocked salmon, once a staple of indigenous diets, is at high risk for extinction due to over-harvesting and industrial water pollution (Yan 2000). An ancient symbol of Taiwan, the Taiwanese salmon, or bunban as the Atayal tribe call them, represent the furthest southern reaches of salmon species in Asia, and are found at the highest recorded altitudes in tributaries of the Dajia river. Dams, agricultural runoff, and pesticide use have all devastatingly impacted the salmon population, and at one point their numbers dipped into the several hundred. The salmon are but one example of many species experiencing immense pressure due to industrial pollution and infrastructure development (Crook 2013), relying heavily on waters to remain cold, clear, and unobstructed. As an indicator and a keystone species, the salmon’s survival impacts the entire ecosystem around them. Protecting them ensures the survival of more species up and downstream into the lazy bends of the river where the egrets hunt and the vines climb over lowland shrubs.
As the dust rises, as the vines climb, as the river flows, so must our mitigation and restoration strategies grow and evolve. Wu Wei, the Daoist state of effortless action, can be equated to modern day resilience and exerting a power of gentleness and balance on the land rather than an unsatiable appetite for resources. The state of the air and water on the island are consequences of decades of regulatory non-action and over-aggressive actions on the part of extractive industry, and to move forward, strategies of low impact resource management must be more deeply explored. For the lone egret, for the wheezing lungs of children, for the streams choked with plastic, progressive and innovative strategies to promote healthy landscapes are imperative. Although many of the pollutant sources on the island have been addressed since the days of my childhood, I find myself sitting on a mossy concrete road barrier on the ridgeline, staring out over the grey-cloaked city. It’s more than twice as large, and fields and small houses have transformed into glass and steel skyscrapers. There’s a mess of new highways and train lines. Some things change, some things stay the same. The smell of fried food hangs in the air and a stray dog stirs in the bushes. Egrets still hunt in the streams, and the white cabbage butterflies still float on air like suspended leaves, shining brightly against the grey smog of the cityscape below.
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