Water supply needs long-term plan

By Wang Jieh-jiuh 王价巨  / 

Tue, Apr 02, 2013 - Page 8

Despite abundant rainfall, the government is warning of a potential drought. This is because water passes over the surface of the land very quickly in Taiwan, into the short, rapidly flowing rivers and streams shooting down the steep gradient of the mountains that form the backbone of the island, into the surrounding seas. Because of this, the water is not able to seep into the land.

That being said, this is a long-standing problem and one wonders why the government has failed to come up with an idea or strategy to address the problem. The nation’s survival depends upon a coordinated approach to water resource management.

The Council for Economic Planning and Development is responsible for national spatial planning, but it has no over-arching plan for local development.

Industrial development is fragmentary and uncoordinated, with local governments competing and focusing on similar industries, leading to a waste of resources and misplaced expectations.

Industry is expanding outside the metropolitan areas into woodlands and forests, resulting in their excessive development and making conservation of natural water resources more difficult.

Water-intensive industries are also placing higher demands on these resources, and less water is being retained in the environment. All this has led to a precarious situation, with water resources at risk. The nation has reached a crossroads in which one wrong turn could spell doom.

Sustainable development is just one duty within the council’s remit, it is not its main goal. General targets have been set, but there is little in the form of actual tactics, plans or strategies to achieve them.

In the absence of any national spatial planning or vision for how development is to take place, how can individual departments and bureaus be expected to proceed according to a coordinated plan?

The Council of Agriculture’s Forestry Bureau is the agency directly responsible for overseeing the nation’s forestry resources.

However, as the land it is supposed to protect continues to recede because of industrial development, all the bureau can do is try to create new forests and woodland elsewhere.

It is next to impossible to conserve decent water resources in such young, temporary woodland and this restricts the water conservation projects of the Council of Agriculture’s Soil and Water Conservation Bureau to merely promoting rural planning, and constructing levees and dams.

This inadequate soil and water conservation means that water sources are usually churned up and muddy after heavy rain, which is why the nation is experiencing a shortage of clean water.

The Water Resources Agency under the Ministry of Economic Affairs is responsible for managing the nation’s water resources, but it has no appreciable, coordinated, long-term strategic plan on how these resources should be managed.

Undertaking engineering projects to build reservoirs to store water, and construct levees and dams for flood-prevention purposes are just emergency-response measures to address the problem of water resource management.

Even non-engineering measures adopted in recent years, such as special promotions to get households and communities to conserve water, is just about piling up figures and is still born of an engineering mentality.

Does the agency really think that these promotions have increased public awareness about how to reduce the risks of floods and droughts?

The Construction and Planning Agency under the Ministry of the Interior is similarly inept when it comes to national spatial resource planning, utilization and management. Despite a falling birth rate, it has allowed urban development to continue at an uncontrollable rate.

There is no managed growth, nor boundaries imposed on urban development, and areas are being rezoned and land expropriated.

The sheer amount of protected land being rezoned as residential and the scale of construction being allowed on land formerly designated for agricultural use only mean that many areas of land are being made impermeable, and water is no longer able to seep into it.

Local review committees also ignore the serious imbalance in supply and demand, and the lack of staff to service the huge new public facilities being built, which is leading to a further waste of resources.

In addition, these newly developed areas are encouraging population inflows, the size of which is hard to predict, and this makes it very difficult to plan urban infrastructure or estimate water usage.

The green grids and blue networks in the cities are disconnected, and local storm water retention basins are not viable because the hope that rainwater in one area can be prevented from flowing out to others is fraught with problems.

As a result, it is difficult to establish a water supply distribution network within a city. Rainwater, unable to sink into the city’s impermeable surface, runs off into the rivers and waterways, flowing into the sea where it quickly becomes salinated and useless in terms of water conservation.

In the name of development, local governments are neglecting traditional water conservation and irrigation facilities, and laying concrete over more areas that could have been used to store water. This will cause flooding during the rainy season and water shortages in the dry season.

The general public has also become used to low water rates and do not view water as a resource, and too much groundwater is being extracted. The nation’s water resources are being depleted at a greater rate than ever before.

The problem with the government is that its departments recognize that things are falling apart, but each believes it is the only one with the solution. There is no coordination, with each agency proceeding as it sees fit.

If all the government can do is ask the public to conserve water during the dry season, these departments have clearly failed in their duty.

The reason the nation suffers from water shortages is that the malfunctioning state machinery does not think long term.

Wang Jieh-jiuh is an associate professor of architecture at Ming Chuan University.

Translated by Paul Cooper