Taiwan faces water wake-up call as climate change intensifies

Experts say Taiwan can no longer rely on typhoons and heavy rain to supply water and must find alternatives.

Taiwan suffered a serious drought earlier this year, and climate change means it will needs to make urgent decisions on water supply [File: Annabelle Chih/Reuters]

Taipei, Taiwan – Every year on May 8, the Japanese engineer Hatta Yochi is honoured as a deity for overseeing the construction of the Wushantou Reservoir and the Chianan Irrigation Canal that transformed Taiwanese agriculture a century ago by allowing the government to store and transport rainwater.

This year, however, as incense and flowers were left at a statute of Hatta at Wushantou, his beloved reservoir was at half capacity while others like it fell as low as 10 to 15 percent as Taiwan faced one of its worst droughts ever.

As an island, Taiwan is dependent on the annual typhoon season to bring enough rainwater to meet its domestic and industrial needs, but it was forced to scramble after a typhoon failed to hit last year for the first time in decades, worsened by limited rainfall.

Domestic water use was rationed while thousands of trucks transported water to supply its lucrative semiconductor industry, angering farmers because much of that water had been earmarked for them.

While Taiwan’s reservoirs were eventually refilled after heavy rain – so much so that it led to flooding in the south – experts have said the island’s recent troubles are just a taste of what is to come with climate change.

“What seems to be happening in Taiwan is the severity of drought is increasing. It’s not just that they are getting less rain, it’s that they are incredibly dry for longer period of times, so they are now in situation where they have to look at solutions like those in countries that have traditionally have issues with water supply,” said Nneka Chike-obi, a director of sustainable finance at Fitch Ratings.

A man stands in heavy rain caused by Tropical Storm Choi-Wan in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei in early June [File: Sam Yeh/AFP]

Typhoons meet about half of Taiwan’s annual water needs, but they will be less reliable as climate change has already begun to affect not only their pathway across the Asia Pacific, but also their intensity, according to a groundbreaking report released this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Right now, the IPCC report says in the Pacific, typhoon pathways will go north and that means while on average three to four typhoons hit Taiwan now, it will maybe be less in the future. It’s a warning to Taiwan. Climate change is not only about this year next year but 10 years or 20 years later,” said Chi-Ming Peng, the founder WeatherRisk, Taiwan’s first private weather-focused company. “Every year, it’s the same cycle. When we have drought issues, we talk and push the government we need to do something. But later, when the rain comes, everything will stop.”

Thirsty agriculture, industry

Tackling Taiwan’s water crisis will be politically difficult for the government.

Their reservoirs can only hold 6.2 billion tonnes of water,  according to the Taiwan Water Resource Agency, but sediment takes up to 25 to 30 percent of capacity in many of them.

Building new dams would be politically unpopular due to their environmental damage, while cutting down on water would require tinkering with two of Taiwan’s biggest industries – farming and chipmaking.

More than two-thirds of the island’s water is used by the agricultural sector, much of which goes towards the twice-yearly cultivation of rice in flooded fields and tropical fruit.

Reducing water use would require farmers to adopt new methods of irrigation like precision irrigation, but this could be a challenge in an industry dominated by small-holders whose average age was 62 in 2015, according to Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture.

People take photos on the exposed riverbed of Taiwan’s Touqian river, a main water source for Hsinchu Science Park where major semiconductor companies are based, in March [File: Ann Wang/Reuters]

They also have had few incentives in the past to change because water was so cheap – with one tonne costing roughly 30 US cents.

Wang Yi-fung, the deputy director-general of the Water Resource Agency, told Al Jazeera the government is considering paying farmers to switch one of their rice harvests to a less water-intensive crop, and also plans to invest in smart irrigation gates that will reduce water leakage, another key issue in domestic and agricultural use.

The government  is also looking to novel methods like technology that can measure soil moisture to reduce water waste as well as traditional ones like wastewater reclamation plants, similar to those used on Taiwan’s outlying islands, as well as digging more deep water wells.

“In Taiwan, the climate change impact is twofold: one is we will have many, many more flooding events, and on the other hand we will have more and more droughts. For us, the Water Resource Agency, the future challenge is getting bigger and bigger,” Wang said.

During the recent drought, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry was the focus of international media attention as the world faced a chip shortage as their production capacity fell due to a lack of water.

Consuming about 20 percent of Taiwan’s water, some of the tech sector’s needs could be met by a new desalination plants that will turn seawater into fresh water, but there are concerns about the price. At about $1 per tonne it could be unaffordable for anyone other than companies like TSMC, Taiwan’s largest chipmaker.

Chiang Ming-lang, director of the Water Resources Agency’s northern region, takes photos of the Baoshan second reservoir with low water levels during an island-wide drought, in Hsinchu, Taiwan in March [File: Ann Wang/Reuters]

Chike-obi said if Taiwan were to divert water again to the tech industry during a drought, it might not meet the same understanding by domestic users and farmers who had to limit their use. Similar scenarios have caused unrest in places such as India when farmers were asked to limit water use.

“The financial fortunes of the agricultural sector are really going to be hit hard if Taiwan faces another drought next year. The question will be, ‘How are we going to make this work for everybody not just the semiconductor industry?’ The average person is not going to be as willing to make continued sacrificed if next year is dry and the year after is dry.”

However, seeing Taiwan’s most important industry struggle could be the wake-up call that some may need to fully understand and address the very real dangers that Taiwan faces from climate change.

“Seeing such a high-value tech sector be impacted is interesting and I think that’s why this story about Taiwan has gotten a lot of interest. People are realising climate change isn’t just something that happens to farmers in California when it doesn’t rain, or fires in Australia, but it impacts high-value products that are economy has become reliant on,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera