When worshippers built a temple for the goddess Matsu in the south 300 years ago, they chose a spot they thought would be at a safe distance from the ocean. They did not count on climate change.
Now, as the nation faces rising sea levels, Taichung County’s Tungshih Township (東勢) has been forced to set up a new temple nearby, 3m higher than the original site.
“Right now, the temple is flooded pretty much every year,” said Tsai Chu-wu, the temple’s chief secretary, explaining why the NT$63 million (US$2 million) project was necessary.
PHOTO: SAM YEH, AFP
“Once the new temple is completed, we should be able to avoid floods and the threat of rising sea levels, at least for many, many years to come,” he said.
The temple of Matsu, ironically often described as the Goddess of the Sea, is only one example of how climate change is slowly, almost imperceptibly piling pressure on Taiwan.
The western coastal plain is home to a string of cities, several industry zones, three nuclear power plants — and a petrochemical complex, built in the 1990s by Formosa Plastics Group, that cost more than US$20 billion to construct.
Unlike the temple, none of these crucial economic establishments can possibly be lifted, leaving them exposed to the elements.
“If sea levels keep rising, part of Taiwan’s low-lying western region could be submerged,” said Wang Chung-ho (汪中和), a scientist at Academia Sinica.
An influential documentary released earlier this year argued that the risk to the petrochemical complex was very real, but a Formosa Plastics official said stringent construction measures meant there was no danger.
Still, environmentalists consider the risk too high to ignore and they point out that it is compounded by the overuse of groundwater both for traditional agriculture and for fish farming.
This has caused groundwater levels to fall and land to subside below sea level in some coastal areas, experts say.
The greatest extent of seawater encroachment has been estimated to be as far as 8.5km inland in an affected area of about 104km² in Pingtung County, a study cowritten by Wang said.
Once low-lying areas are routinely invaded by sea water, it is very hard to turn back the tide, analysts say.
“They may not be restored and become wastelands within 100 years,” said Hsu Tai-wen (??, head of the Hydraulic and Ocean Engineering Department of National Cheng Kung University in Tainan.
In its 2007 assessment report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that because of climate change, the world’s sea levels are projected to rise by up to 0.59m before the end of the century.
Wang. however, was more pessimistic, citing recent findings that greenhouse gas emissions are rising faster than previously believed.
“As more evidence shows that climate change is worsening, we estimate that sea levels will rise by up to 2m before the close of the century, or up to 10 times that of the last century,” he said.
Taipei residents may be among the first to suffer because of the risk posed to Tamsui (淡水).
“The streets of coastal cities like Tamsui will be invaded by saline water,” Wang said.
Authorities have started drafting Taiwan’s first climate change white paper, which aims to come up with comprehensive measures to prevent natural disasters caused by rising temperatures.
Apart from rising sea levels, scientists at Academia Sinica warned late last year that climate change would cause the amount of heavy rain dumped on Taiwan to triple over the next 20 years.
The projection was based on statistics showing the incidence of heavy rainfall has doubled in the past 45 years, which the scientists say has coincided with a global rise in temperatures.
The torrential rains unleashed by a typhoon could burst the Shihmen Dam (石門水庫), a reservoir on a river that flows past Taipei County, where millions of people reside, Wang warned.
The draft white paper calls for raising existing coastal embankments, constructing dams, improving conservation of river water and soil upstream, and laying idle some areas reclaimed from the ocean and rivers.
“This should have been done earlier,” said Hsu, a member of an academic panel that reviewed the white paper.
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