In discussing Taiwan’s development, it is conventional to present the country as a place with few natural resources, that became rich through hard work, good policy and a little luck. This makes a neat, flattering moral tale, but it is not entirely true: in its industrial heyday Taiwan had a superabundance of the one resource nearly all industrial processes need: water.
It is thus jarring to read, in a recent report on water risks to Japanese supply chains, that water scarcity costs could depress earnings for specialty chemicals and steel supplier firms: “Most of these are based in the Republic of Korea or Taiwan, which are both exposed to water stress.”
Water scarcity. On an island coated in riotous green vegetation, with a seeming abundance of watercourses and plentiful rainfall, these two words have not sunk in.
Photo: Lee Jung-ping, Taipei Times
The primary reason for the ongoing crisis is that the island’s water prices are insanely low, a fact periodically reported in the media, using a variety of measures. For example, according to a 2018 report from the International Water Association, Taiwan’s water price to income ratio is the second lowest in the world.
Naturally, when something costs little, people will overuse it, leading to shortages. It is not a coincidence that Taipei faces water shortages more often than other places in Taiwan: it has the nation’s cheapest water.
In the process of misusing water, residential households have developed the idea that water will always be there for them and rationing is merely a temporary local irritation. Because of its historical abundance and low price, Taiwanese simply lack consciousness of water.
As global warming dries out the world, it is reshaping Taiwan’s climate. Researchers say that Taiwan can expect fewer but more powerful typhoons. Since Taiwan gets the bulk of its water from typhoons, this can only mean an increasingly dire water situation over time.
Last year was the first since 1964 without a typhoon, forcing the government to implement water saving measures in October, the earliest such move ever. This is a harbinger of the new normal.
Like a sixty-car pile up on a foggy freeway, Taiwan’s water crises are all happening at the same time. Unnaturally high demand and slowly fading precipitation are complemented by rapidly silting reservoirs and draining aquifers.
Groundwater pumping (again free and unregulated, exacerbated by low electricity and gasoline costs) has led to subsidence across much of the western seaboard of Taiwan. In the Taipei basin groundwater pumping was halted in the 1970s, one of the few times the government responded forcefully to an environmental crisis.
Elsewhere it continues unabated, with tens of thousands of pumps in operation. Politicians are reluctant to stop the insanity because free groundwater is an important driver of local economies. Thus, the subsidence continues, stressing key infrastructure such as the High Speed Rail, letting seawater into aquifers and increasing flooding hazards in low-lying areas.
Similarly, Taiwan’s reservoir catchment areas are overrun with illegal farms, bed and breakfasts and campgrounds, which are either ignored or given quasi-legal status. The result of this policy of malign neglect is rapidly silting reservoirs. By 2030 Taiwan’s reservoirs could be operating at half their current capacity.
Yet even today these reservoirs can only store 1.5 months of water, according to the Water Resources Agency. Industrial demand is expected to more or less double by 2030.
The economic costs of this policy disaster are enormous and will only grow. Not only are Taiwan’s advanced technology manufacturers forced to recycle water and recover it from sewage systems, but Commonwealth magazine reported two years ago that TSMC and other key firms have to keep hundreds of water trucks on call in case of supply interruptions.
This situation has been pounced on with glee by South Korean chip makers, who tell potential clients that Taiwanese firms are not reliable because of their water situation, Commonwealth added.
With the massive pressure on TSMC as a result of the recent demand for chips, the local water situation has powerful international implications for Taiwan’s security. If chip production shifts elsewhere because of the water problems in Taiwan, that will eliminate a strong argument for the defense of Taiwan and reduce the nation’s global influence.
The resources are there: Taiwan receives more rainfall on average than any other advanced economy, Commonwealth reported. Roughly 80 percent of this returns to the sea.
In the 1980s, I served in Kenya as a US Peace Corps volunteer. Everyone was conscious of the nation’s water scarcity, and every house had a catchment system to store rainwater. Whenever we volunteers met up, we always asked about the water conditions at each other’s sites.
There is no reason that Taiwan cannot do the same. Just as there’s no reason that individual houses cannot be solarized and equipped with solar or wind power systems. Just as there is no reason that aircon runs 24-7 in uninsulated houses, or that the local architecture refuses to respond to the local climate. Just as there is no reason rice paddies cannot be flooded in the offseason to recharge groundwater aquifers.
The root of the problem is the developmentalist mentality of Taiwan’s policymakers and business community, who view an abundance of a resource as a marker of success and conservation as a dirty word.
Rather than educate the public and change social consciousness, policy makers engage in an endless series of expedient measures, like go-slows on water provisioning at night, so no one notices, or having water trucks on standby.
Yet, as science-fiction author Robert Heinlein once observed, there is no such thing as a temporary emergency. These problems are not going to go away.
There is no excuse for this vast policy failure. Taiwanese have shown they are willing to adapt to government mandates that are aimed at the good of all the people. They recycle. They wear masks. They line up. They don helmets. They have stopped throwing furniture off mountain roads and they have reduced their littering.
If the government asks them and teaches them, they will complain a lot, and then respond positively. The public can learn to accept higher water prices and more intense conservation measures. The question is whether our politicians can.
Last week I scootered up the east coast, enjoying a stretch of lovely rainless days. In Chenggong (成功) I hung out with friends and talked to a local farmer. The litany of complaints and problems he enumerated soon boiled down to a single sentence. “That well?” he said, indicating one of his chief troubles. “It’s dried up. The whole east coast is drying up.”
If we do not change, that will be Taiwan’s epitaph.
Notes from Central Taiwan is a column written by long-term resident Michael Turton, who provides incisive commentary informed by three decades of living in and writing about his adoptive country.
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