Fri, Aug 12, 2005 - Page 8 News List

The price of water is just too low

By Lee Hong-yuan 李鴻源

Typhoon Matsa muddied the water in Shihmen Reservoir, and because water facilities cannot handle muddy water, it became necessary to ration the water supply, leading to protests by the public.

The fact is that Taoyuan and Taipei counties have suffered water supply problems after almost every typhoon over the past few years. Over the same period, I have constantly claimed that the Shihmen Reservoir is old and that silt accumulation leads to a shortage of 400 million tonnes every year.

Meanwhile, the science park in Taoyuan is actively working to attract businesses and new residential areas are constantly being developed. Without appropriate legal controls, the nightmarish water supply problems in the Greater Taipei area will move from being occasional, to becoming permanent. And since there is no space to build another big reservoir in northern Taiwan, other measures will be required.

The government should make appropriate adjustments to the price of water so that conserving the resource doesn't remain merely a slogan and a political problem. That is the best way to promote sustainable national development. The problem currently facing us is that the Greater Taipei area has a shortage of 400 million tonnes of water. Last year, the Shihmen Reservoir accumulated more than 87 million tonnes of silt. This figure is increasing by the year, causing the reservoir to continue to shrink.

The cost of removing one tonne of silt is between NT$300 and NT$400, which means that cleaning the whole reservoir would be outrageously expensive. Another big problem would be where to dump all that silt. The Water Resources Agency (水利署) is now trying to work around the muddiness by taking water from different levels, but such methods do not address the fundamental problem.

So is there a water shortage in Taiwan? The fact is, there is a lot of room to cut down on water usage. The problem is that our policies fail to use water resources comprehensively and effectively.

The average Taiwanese person uses 350 liters of water per day, while the average person in the US or Europe uses 150 liters per day. The price of one unit of water in the US and Europe is NT$40, while in Taipei City it is NT$7, and for Taiwan overall, NT$9.

Taiwan prides itself on being a developed country with a GDP of more than US$14,000. Water usage, however, stands at twice that of the US and Europe, and the price of water is equal to that of third-world developing countries. Even prices in China are twice as high as in Taiwan. Not everyone may know that the development cost for a new water reservoir currently stands at NT$22 for one unit of water, while the cost for sea water desalinization is NT$40. This comparison makes it even more obvious that Taiwan's water prices are unreasonable. The Water Resources Agency has on several occasions suggested to the Cabinet that water prices should be adjusted upwards, but all such suggestions have been waved off. The fact is that a reasonable rise in the cost of water would not be much of a burden for the general public.

It is industry that would feel the effects and some pressure. Is the government keeping prices low for the public or for industry? The US and Europe have set a reasonable price for water to make the public understand the value of water resources, while at the same time forcing industry to recycle more than 90 percent of the water used. This has made the economical use of water part of day-to-day life.

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