Spring rains having arrived later than usual, Taiwan faces its gravest water shortage in seven years. Meanwhile, poor harvests around the world have caused food prices to soar. As if the 2008 global financial crisis was not bad enough, a food crisis is creeping up on us.
Vice Premier Sean Chen (陳沖) has called it a “quiet tsunami,” because of its role as a catalyst for the “jasmine revolutions” in the Middle East and North Africa. This is the first time Taiwan has been confronted by these two kinds of crisis at the same time. What is absurd is that, with a food crisis looming, the Environmental Protection Administration says it plans to relax restrictions on some forms of cultivation in weir catchment areas, allowing it to go ahead without any environmental impact assessment.
At a national conference on food security on May 10 to May 12, the Council of Agriculture announced that it would promote local production for local consumption, with the aim of raising national food self-sufficiency to 40 percent by 2020. Taiwan has relatively poor water resources, and is right now taking measures to deal with the threat of drought. In such a situation, the government’s food self-sufficiency target may seem unrealistic, but is in fact not so far-fetched.
Taiwan’s self-sufficiency in soybeans, wheat and maize is almost nil. On the surface, the nation appears to be 90 percent self-sufficient in rice, but that is largely because dietary habits are becoming Westernized. According to Lin Kuo-ching (林國慶), a professor of agricultural economics at National Taiwan University, consumption of rice per person in Taiwan is the lowest among all countries where rice is the main staple food. Earlier this year, the council called on Taiwanese to help farmers get their paddy fields back into production by eating a bit more rice each day. This should help promote national food self-sufficiency.
Most think that growing rice in paddy fields uses up a lot of water and is of little economic benefit, and that devoting more land to rice would put Taiwan’s water supply under greater strain. That may be true under the current short-term conditions, but in the long term, paddy fields actually do not use a lot of water. On the contrary, they are an efficient way of circulating water.
Apart from the private benefit gained by farmers harvesting rice, paddy fields are beneficial for the whole nation. Research conducted in Taiwan and abroad confirms that paddy fields help regulate floodwater and replenish groundwater. The reservoir ponds that dot Taiwan’s countryside contribute to this effect. Other benefits of paddy fields include beautifying the environment, purifying water, regulating the temperature and generating oxygen.
In Japan, water resources expert Minoru Nakagawa has done research on water infiltration into the soil from paddy field irrigation. He estimates paddy field irrigation throughout Japan conserves about 3.93 billion cubic meters of underground water a year, and that 9.8 billion cubic meters permeate deep underground. At the time this research was done, that was roughly equal to the amount of groundwater drawn in Japan each year.
Research commissioned by the council in 2002 into paddy field cultivation in Taiwan found that about 60 percent of the water used for paddy field irrigation infiltrates back into the ground, while most of the remaining 40 percent evaporates into the atmosphere. This water vapor helps regulate the temperature and can return to the earth’s surface in the form of rain. Only a very small amount of water is absorbed by rice plants.