Sat, Sep 03, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Why Taoyuan has water shortages

Pity the poor residents of Taoyuan County. It seemed like an interminable wait to get water flowing after Typhoons Haitang and Matsa, but perhaps they are used to it -- it took 17 days to restore water after typhoon Aere last year. Now luckless Taoyuan residents are alternating one day with water and one day without in the wake of Typhoon Talim this week.

The problem is not a lack of water -- as in the 2002 drought -- but too much of what ordinarily is a good thing. There is plenty of water in the Shihmen Reservoir, but it is too muddy to be filtered and passed into the water supply system. So Taoyuan residents find themselves like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, with "water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

The real reasons for this problem are never referred to. Instead, the opposition slates the government for bad management, to the extent whereby Yin Chi-ming (尹啟銘), the vice minister of economic affairs, quit to take responsibility for the fiasco. And the government response is to try to use the water supply problem to pass its flood prevention bill, though the two are not closely connected and many see the bill as a vote-getting boondoggle aimed at the year-end elections.

We have also been treated to little pieces of theater in which Grand Panjandrums show they care. Frank Hsieh's (謝長廷) overnighting by Shihmen Reservoir last month -- so he could check the water quality early the next morning, apparently -- is one risible example.

Amid all the controversy about who is responsible for what, and whose head should roll, there has been very little mention of why the water is unusable for a time in the wake of typhoons. Everyone knows that it is because there is too much mud in it, but it seems that almost nobody wants to discuss where this mud comes from, only how to get rid of it. Where it comes from, of course, is off the hills of the Shihmen Reservoir's catchment area. The mud is topsoil that is being washed into the reservoir by the fury of the typhoon rains. The turbidity of the water, which makes it unusable in the short term, is a direct result of soil erosion.

Why is this erosion taking place? And more particularly, why is it an annual problem now when it wasn't only a few years ago? Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮) has noted, for example, that during her tenure as Taoyuan County commissioner in the late 1990s, these water supply problems never occurred.

One answer frequently resorted to is that earthquakes, especially the great earthquake of September 1999, have greatly disturbed the land structure, loosening the topsoil and speeding erosion. This is certainly partly true, but it is a convenient scapegoat for the real culprit, which is land mismanagement or misuse. In the 750km2 catchment area for the Shihmen dam, extending into Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Ilan counties, fruit farming has increased nearly 50 percent in the last 20 years and the vast majority of this increase has been on slopeland where cultivation is in fact banned. And there is of course the vast acreage of similar land which in a similar time frame has been put under betel nut cultivation, a particularly pernicious crop in terms of its effects on the soil.

Taoyuan residents don't have water because cultivators have damaged the land and now that damaged land -- the source of their livelihood -- is flowing into the Shihmen Reservoir. So the two questions behind these water problems are: Who let this mismanagement happen? And what sort of land-restoration projects might, if it is possible, reverse the damage?

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