The government’s decision to force farmers to let agricultural land lie fallow to cope with a possible water shortage has provoked strong criticism. The reaction has bewildered many officials, for this was how water shortages were dealt with in the past, without meeting such fierce objections. It seems these confused officials have not noticed the shift in society, which is no longer content with tired thinking and outdated policies.
Taiwan is listed as a “water resource-poor region” by the UN, so the main public concern over fallow farmland is what practical measures the government is taking to address the issue before water shortages occur.
The public is also concerned about what the government’s standard operating procedure is for dealing with a water shortage when it occurs, and whether laying farmland fallow is the best way to tackle the crisis. Other issues of concern are the basis for the government’s decision to order 41,576 hectares of land to be laid fallow, the logic behind the decision to grant compensation of NT$85,000 per 0.97 hectare, if these numbers are reasonable, and whether the government has communicated with farmers in affected agricultural areas.
When water shortages occurred in the past, the government used to prioritize water for use in the industrial sector over the agricultural sector. Groups representing agriculture questioned if this policy violates the Water Act (水利法), but the authorities have never taken these queries seriously. They have not attempted to amend the law or striven to alleviate potential water shortages through technological or systemic means.
They have only handled water shortages with temporary solutions, without caring if the same problems arise each year. The result of this approach is a never-ending water shortage nightmare.
To tackle the water shortage crisis, the government should be fully prepared, both for water shortages and for flooding brought by typhoons.
In California, for example, agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water usage. To cope with water shortages in recent years, the US government advocated water conservation and planting high-value crops, developed water saving facilities, applied technology to closely monitor the locations and the usage of water resources — such as the California Irrigation Management Information System — and paid attention to comprehensive water resource management. What has the Taiwanese government done?
Academics love to refer to economic returns when discussing the allocation of agricultural resources. It is true that a given area of land can often produce more profit when used for industry rather than agriculture. The problem is that profits made by corporations and businesses mostly stay within these organizations, or in some cases, are partially shared with politicians, while the pollution is all that is left for everybody else.
On the other hand, agriculture can help stabilize prices and benefits everyone when land is used sustainably. Which is more beneficial?
Water rationing must be fair and just. Farmers should do their part to conserve water, but industry, which is high on water consumption, is more capable of using technology and facilities to save water. However, with low water prices and the policy to prioritize industrial over agricultural use of land, there are no incentives for businesses to invest in facilities that could save water and prevent shortages. Therefore, the problem has become a vicious cycle and farmers are the victims.
From an economic perspective, the government should consider employing a cap and trade approach on water rights — the government or businesses can purchase the water that farmers save. Instead of forcing farmers to stop using water, this approach would motivate them to save water.
Agriculture in Taiwan is difficult work and it does not receive the attention it deserves. There is no shortage of worries for farmers — becoming victims of Taiwan’s engagement in regional trade organizations, expropriation of agricultural land at low prices, constant imbalances between production and sales, exploitation by middlemen, constant changes to agricultural law and land being laid fallow due to water shortages.
Although NT$100 billion (US$3.12 billion) is budgeted annually for agriculture by the government, farmers’ earnings remain low and the government has never taken pains to review the effects of budgets. Neither have legislators, who are charged with supervising the government. Their action, or lack thereof, will determine how many votes they receive in future elections.
To turn the tide, farmers have no one to depend on but themselves.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Ethan Zhan
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