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.
In 1993, Tsai Ming-hua (蔡明華), now director of the council’s Department of Irrigation and Engineering, carried out research into the beneficial effects of paddy field irrigation. He found that, between 1982 and 1992, the reduction of land devoted to paddy fields caused Taiwan to lose 13.473 billion tonnes of groundwater that would otherwise have been replenished through paddy field irrigation — roughly 23 times the storage capacity of the Zengwen Reservoir (曾文水庫).
Fighting drought in the short term may require extraordinary means, but water resources also need to be planned over the long term. Consumption can be reduced through pricing, by charging higher, differential and progressive rates for water use. Replacing old pipes would reduce leakage. Domestic and industrial wastewater can be recycled and reused. Existing reservoirs should be preserved wherever possible. Soil and water in reservoir catchment areas could be conserved by preventing unauthorized farming and construction.
Proper care should be taken of farmers and the land. Putting fallow fields back into production would make Taiwan more self-sufficient in food, and it would also replenish groundwater, forming a natural reservoir. As well as regulating the water supply, this would reduce the problem of land subsidence. To do so would have many advantages, since it would cost less and have a smaller environmental impact than building more reservoirs, artificial lakes or desalination plants.
Food and water are precious in terms of value rather than price. Governments cannot allow food prices to go through the roof, because if food becomes unaffordable, the government runs the risk of being overthrown or voted out of power. In the past, economists who followed the capitalist tradition repeated a false idea so many times that it came to be accepted as truth.
Based on food prices, which are held down, they concluded that the output value of agriculture is too low, and called on governments to reclassify farmland so that it can be used for other purposes and to divert water from farming to other uses. In their view, free trade allows us to buy as much cheap food and water as we need at any time. However, as the price of oil keeps climbing and in the wake of poor harvests, the idea that free trade is all--powerful has been exposed as false. The EU and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization are doing their best to conserve farmland and ensure food security. Agriculture is once more being given the recognition it deserves.
It is even more important for Taiwan, which is far from self-sufficient in food and has meager water resources, to discard such old mistaken ideas and to formulate new food and water resources policies based on the recognition that we are going to have to fight to survive.
Chan Shun-kuei is chairman of the Taiwan Bar Association’s environmental law committee.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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