“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” This passage from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes the torment of thirsty sailors becalmed at sea. For the nation’s famers and high-tech industries — and the public at large — it could be a portent of a future where rainfall grows increasingly sparse and rationing becomes a way of life.
A Central Weather Bureau report this week said the number of rainy days in Taiwan has gradually decreased over the past century — four days less every decade — though the overall annual volume has remained the same, thanks in part to the fact that the number of days with torrential rain has increased.
Just think back to the spring and summer of 2002, when Taipei received less than half its average rainfall compared with the previous three decades and Kaohsiung City was struggling with just 27 percent of its average. Irrigation in drought-stricken areas was suspended in April, while by May, the water level in Shihmen Reservoir had dropped to just 201m, Sun Moon Lake was shrinking daily and a large segment of Taipei residents faced one day without water every five days.
We are slightly better off than nine years ago, but that is not saying much. A second phase of water rationing will be imposed in parts of New Taipei City (新北市), Taoyuan and Hsinchu counties starting on Wednesday, and in five areas in central and southern Taiwan the following week.
Outside of prayers or rain dances, there is little the public or the government can do to bring more rain, but there is much that can be done to improve the way water is utilized.
Minister of Economic Affairs Shih Yen-shiang (施顏祥) told the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Central Standing Committee that the government hoped it would not have to impose a third phase of water rationing next month because “it would greatly inconvenience the public,” but it would step up measures to promote water conservation and consider adjusting water prices. Meanwhile, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) called on the public to conserve water.
It might help if Shih, Ma and the rest of the administration could get on the same page before they ask the public to do more — and not just for this year. Yes, the nation is in the middle of a drought and yes, everyone will have to learn to get by with less. However, the kind of conservation needed means lifestyle changes, not short-term measures. It must also mean paying more for water, because that appears to be the only way to get both the public and industry to curb their wasteful ways.
At present, rates range from slightly more than NT$7 per 1,000 liters to just over NT$12. That is ridiculously low. Average water consumption is 271 liters per person per day, compared with 250 liters per person for the US and Europe. That is ridiculously high.
Several of this nation’s high-tech leaders recycle significant amounts of the wastewater they generate, with the recycling average at some factories reaching 85 percent or more. It is not that they are environmental champions, but it makes economic sense for them to recycle as much as possible all year, not just when facing the threat of rationing.
The government must show it makes economic sense for people to reduce their water usage and conserve. There is already a successful model for this — the introduction of a per bag charge for garbage collection, which led to a dramatic reduction in the amount of trash generated by families and companies. Higher electricity costs during peak summer months also spur conservation efforts.