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Taiwan president under fire over typhoon response

Critics say Typhoon Morakot is Ma Ying-jeou's Hurricane Katrina. He has been faulted for weak leadership in dealing with a devastating storm that killed at least 127, with hundreds still missing.

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The extent of the political fallout remains to be seen. The deputy foreign minister, who was in charge of the ministry when the typhoon hit, tendered his resignation Tuesday over the ministry's "confusing" instructions on accepting foreign aid.

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Despite calls for his resignation, Ma has ruled out stepping down for now, and says a review to be completed by early September will determine which, if any, officials should be fired.

Mr. Tsai says that if Ma doesn't win back public support in the coming weeks, his party could suffer in year-end elections seen as "midterm" test for his leadership. He may also lose political capital he needs to pass his agenda, notably a cross-Strait trade deal, says Tsai.

Water project under scrutiny

Meanwhile, residents of one disaster-hit area say a water-diversion project helped create the conditions for a devastating mudslide, according to local press reports. The head of the Water Resources Agency on Monday rejected that charge, according to the Taipei Times.

The project aims to divert water into the Tsengwen Reservoir – Taiwan's largest, and the main source of water in southern Taiwan – from an adjacent basin. The project involved dynamiting soil, which villagers say made the area more prone to landslides.

Two civil engineering experts interviewed by phone Tuesday said they didn't have enough information to assess those charges.

But both said that weather patterns had changed in the past 10 to 15 years, causing more extreme cycles of flood and drought, and that education and flood evacuation drills were needed.

Lin Mei-ling, a civil engineer at National Taiwan University and former head of the government's "debris flow" task force, said "It [the diversion project] may have been a factor, but probably not a significant one."

Intense rainfall – more than four inches per hour for a day – was probably the "major cause" of the disaster at Shiaolin, she says. Ms. Lin added that the area around Shiaolin was "geologically weak."

Lin said the government should put more emphasis on an ongoing project to map areas at a high risk of landslides. "It's difficult to fix every place – it's too expensive," says Lin. "We've already developed a system to identify potentially hazardous areas."

In a press conference Tuesday, Ma said the government would consider "red alerts" and forced evacuations for high-risk areas. "You can't really fight nature," he said. "When there's a mudslide, the only way out is to evacuate."

But Lin pointed out that a law passed after a devastating 1999 earthquake already gives the national government's emergency response center the authority to order evacuations.

In the sad case of Shiaolin, either that order was never given, or it was ignored by local authorities. Investigations in the coming weeks will likely show which.

Wire material was used in this report.

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