Coming to terms with drought
WHAT'S BEING DONE
While water-resources agencies deal with the shortages, officials are considering longer-term measures to prevent this from happening again
By Chiu Yu-Tzu / STAFF REPORTER
With water-conservation measures starting to bite around the country, the question the public most wants answered is: "When will the drought end?"
\n"It's very hard to say," Chen Shen-hsien (陳伸賢), spokesman and deputy director of the Water Resources Agency (水利署), told the Taipei Times.
\n"The drought emergency might be lifted if the heavens give us three days of torrential rain concentrated in watersheds."
\nAt the Shihmen Dam (石門水庫) in Taoyuan County, one of the major reservoirs in northern Taiwan, water levels are falling close to the "dead storage" level, below which water has to be pumped out to supply to consumers.
\nAgency officials expect the reservoir to reach its dead storage level next month if no rains come. The dam has never reached its dead storage level since it was opened in 1964.
\n"We will be safe if the water levels remain above the dead storage level at the major reservoirs by the middle of June, when the dry season ends," Chen said.
\nBut for this to happen, the country needs rain, and a lot more than it has been getting so far this year.
\nThe average rainfall from January to April this year was only 30 percent of the average for this period. The Central Weather Bureau has forecast that rain will not come until the middle of this month.
\nNot like other natural disasters
\nUnlike other natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes, drought creeps across the nation slowly, gradually affecting people's daily lives.
\nWhen a drought emergency is announced, officials said, all that people can do is consume the available water as slowly as they can.
\n"That's why we need to save water during the rainy season to cope with times of drought," Tyan Chau-ling (田巧玲), a senior engineer at the agency's Water Resources Division, told the Taipei Times.
\n"This is Taiwan's chief operating principle in water-resources management."
\nIn the south, 90 percent of the total rainfall comes during the wet season, from May to October. In northern Taiwan, 60 percent falls during this season.
\nTaiwan's topography, however, makes it difficult for water-resource agencies to collect water during the wet season. Rivers originating in the Central Mountain Range are short and steep, causing runoff to flow rapidly out to the sea.
\nAccording to the agency, based on data collected between 1989 and 1998, Taiwan receives an average of 89.15 billion tonnes of rainwater a year.
\nHowever, only a small percentage of this can be retained.
\nA little over 24 percent of the rainfall evaporates before it can be collected. Of the water that remains on or in the ground, 4.257 billion tonnes are collected at reservoirs, 7.503 billion tonnes are diverted from rivers and 6.281 billion tonnes are pumped from under the ground.
\n"Accumulating as much water as we can is absolutely essential for Taiwan," Tyan said.
\nTaiwan already has about 40 reservoirs. But officials still argue that Taiwan has no choice but to build more reservoirs to trap rainwater.
\nThe opportunities for developing new supplies in Taiwan, however, are becoming fewer.
\nThe cost of a new reservoir is increasing because the number of appropriate sites is decreasing, officials said. Moreover, environmental awareness has become a more important factor in building reservoirs.
\n"Building large reservoirs will not be as easy as before. So we have to adopt new ways to develop water resources, such as desalinating seawater and building artificial lakes" Chen said.
\nDesalination has been widely used in remote islets, such as Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu, for residential use. And Taiwan Power operates a desalination plant at the Third Nuclear Power Plant in Pingtung County for industrial use.
\n"Because of the high price of desalinated water, it's not easy to bring the technology into widespread use in Taiwan," said Tyan of WRA's Water Resources Division.
\nThe cost of desalinated water on outlying islands is between NT$30 and NT$40 per tonne, higher than in Taiwan proper, where it costs between NT$10 and NT$20.
\nThe WRA, however, is promoting the technology in several coastal counties, including Tainan, Kaohsiung, Yunlin, Hsinchu, Miaoli and Changhua. The agency hopes to produce at least 200,000 tonnes of desalinated water per day by 2021.
\nOfficials believe the distribution of the water is almost as important as making sure there is enough to go around.
\nThey point out that agriculture, which uses up 75 percent of available water resources, helps generate only 3 percent of the country's GDP.
\nBut persuading the farming sector to use less water may not be easy. When the Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park began to run short of water in March, the Ministry of Economic Affairs tried to claim part of water rights held by the Council of Agriculture. But council Chairman Fan Cheng-chung (范振宗) criticized a move that gave industry priority over farmers in distributing scarce water resources.
\nOfficials told the Taipei Times that Taiwan's WTO entry would lead to a revision of agricultural policies that will make it possible to redistribute water resources more easily.
\n"We hope that one-tenth of irrigation water can be shifted to residential and industrial uses if new agricultural policies provide for leaving some fields fallow," Chen said.
\nBut increasing the supply of water to residential and industrial sectors has been criticized by anti-dam activists, who argue that promoting water conservation and reforming the way industries operate are more rational than developing new water resources.
\nThe recent drought has also highlighted the low price consumers in Taiwan are allowed to pay for water.
\nExperts have urged the government to ensure water is priced closer to its market value to promote water conservation.
\nAccording to the Cabinet's Direct-orate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics (主計處), the average price for each tonne of tap water in Taiwan was about NT$10.1, which is lower than Tokyo's NT$65; London's NT$33; Paris' NT$26; and Singapore's, which is between NT$24 and NT$38.
\nWhile experts search for long-term solutions, the agency has been resorting to back-up measures to deal with the current crisis.
\nOn May 1, the agency began pumping groundwater from 79 deep wells in Taoyuan and Miaoli counties. The daily supply of water from each of the wells, established between 1988 and 1990, ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes, officials said.
\nMeanwhile, residents have been reopening abandoned wells. Water-resources officials said using groundwater wisely was a major way to ensure the public has enough water.
\nGroundwater experts, however, warn against pumping too much groundwater during the drought.
\n"It's irreversible once land subsidence occurs," Kao Ruey-chy (高瑞棋), a professor of Tainan Hydraulics Laboratory at National Cheng Kung University, told the Taipei Times.
\nKao, who is also in charge of the agency's land subsidence prevention and reclamation project, said that over-pumping in coastal areas over the past few decades had been depleting aquifers.
\nThe Water Conservancy Law banned the pumping of groundwater in parts of 88 townships across the country and five cities, including Taipei and Kaohsiung, where land subsidence had occurred.
\nBut officials said illegal wells were still being used.
\n"We still don't know the exact number of illegal wells that might be invisibly drying out Taiwan," Kao said.
A man walks on the dry bed of the Shihmen Reservoir in Taoyuan County. The water level at the reservoir has almost fallen to the ``dead storage'' level, below which water has to be pumped out to serve consumers.
PHOTO: GEORGE TSORNG, TAIPEI TIMES
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