The Elephant in the Room: Living and Dying with Hazardous Chemicals in Urban Settings in the Disasters of 2014 Kaohsiung Gas Explosions and 2015 Tianjin Chemical Explosions

Thursday, 14 July 2016: 14:15
Location: Hörsaal 4A KS (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Ming-chi CHEN, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan
Within a little more than one year’s time span, two major explosions in the East Asia have drawn the worldwide attention.  On July 31, 2014, a series of gas explosions rocked Kaohsiung, a big industrial city in southern Taiwan, a country with vibrant electoral democracy.  It was discovered that the explosions were caused by the gas leaked from the labyrinth of underground pipelines that deliver hazardous gas from the port to the petrochemical plants in the city’s heavy industrial suburb.  One year later, on August 12, 2015, another chemical explosion of even greater scale stroke China’s major industry-port city of Tianjin, a metropolis designated as the growth pole by an authoritarian regime.  This time the culprit was a company specialized in the logistics of hazardous chemicals whose licensed warehouse located less than one kilometer from the middle-class housing complex.  Similar to two urban disasters is the proximity or even the overlap of residential area and industry facilities has caused the heavy civilian casualties.  This seemly deviant urban design is rather normal in most of the developing countries.  This paper first analyzes the normalization of deviance in the daily operation of petrochemical industries in late industrializing settings.  It then explores the political economy of the spatial production that has led to the urban disasters beyond the differences of governance regimes.  This paper attempts to shed lit on the urban development pattern common in the newly industrializing countries and its potentials for disastrous consequences.