Can Taiwan Solve its Water Problem?

Seasonal Prevailing winds in East Asia
PREVAILING WINDS — The maps chart seasonal prevailing winds in East Asia.
The map on the left shows the winter winds coming south off of the Korean
Peninsula, which eventually hit Taiwan from the east.

Located in Asia’s wet subtropical zone, Taiwan receives 2.6 times more rainfall than the global average – yet it is nevertheless classified by the United Nations as an area of scarce water resources. This paradox is expected to be especially acute this year, as the current severe drought is causing farmers to fear for their spring harvest. Key high-tech sectors that require large quantities of water, including the semiconductor, TFT-LCD panel, and printed circuit board (PCB) industries, are also watching the situation carefully, since they are heavily concentrated in regions likely to be the main targets for water rationing.

One potential solution to the water challenge would be the increased use of recycled water, but Taiwan’s extremely low water prices have discouraged investor interest in related infrastructure projects.

In some years, Taiwan faces the opposite problem – torrential rains causing dangerous flooding, especially in mountainous areas. But that is not the current situation.

It takes 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water, for example, to produce a single kilogram of rice, compared to 500 to 2,000 liters of water for the same quantity of wheat.

“Because typhoons failed to bring sufficient rainfall in the past year, we’ve been controlling outflows from all reservoirs since September,” reports Lai Chien-hsin, chief secretary of the Water Resource Agency under the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA). He notes that eight areas on the island – Banqiao, Xinzhuang, Taoyuan, Miaoli, Hsinchu, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung – are currently under Phase-1 water rationing, which entails a reduction in water pressure between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Taoyuan Shimen reservoir drought
PARCHED EARTH — The scene at Taoyuan’s Shimen Reservoir when affected by drought.

Besides controlling water outflow, the Water Resource Agency has also been engaging in cloud seeding using either aircraft or small rockets. Lai says this technique should be able to increase rainfall in the target areas by around 10%, still not enough to make up for the shortage.

Phase-2 restrictions, involving reduced or suspended water supply for irrigation purposes, have been implemented for Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Chiayi, Miaoli, and Taichung, leading to vehement protests from farmers who face the prospect of having to curtail production of certain crops. It takes 2,000 to 5,000 liters of water, for example, to produce a single kilogram of rice, compared to 500 to 2,000 liters of water for the same quantity of wheat.

If the situation does not improve, the authorities have the option of imposing Phase-3 controls, covering industrial use, as well as Phase 4, reducing water supply to households. Only critical facilities such as hospitals would be completely spared from the restrictions.

According to the Market Intelligence & Consulting Institute (MIC), the likely impact of the drought on Taiwan’s high-tech sector will be much less than for agriculture. In December, the government agreed to increase the amount of water from New Taipei City’s Feitsui Dam made available for high-tech manufacturers in the Hsinchu area. Lai says that all three of Taiwan’s science parks currently have a sufficient supply of water, and the government will next reassess the situation right after the Chinese New Year.

MIC also notes that companies have learned a lesson from previous droughts.

“After a pretty bad dry spell hit Taiwan’s semiconductor/high-tech manufacturers in 2002, they have been taking all precautions to eliminate the impact of droughts on them,” the MIC semiconductor team told TOPICS by email. “So if the dry spell persists, water rationing will surely still have some effect on semiconductor production but at a lower level compared to a few years ago.”

Citing an example of such precautionary measures, MIC says contract chipmaker United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) has put greater emphasis on water recycling and wastewater treatment. Other companies, such as Nanya Technology, a manufacturer of dynamic random access memory chips (DRAMs), have built their own water reservoirs to reduce the risk from drought, according to MIC.

The main reason for Taiwan’s water problem is the uneven seasonal rainfall distribution through most of the island (the northeast, including Taipei, is an exception). Whereas typhoons usually help fill up Taiwan’s reservoirs in the summer, they hardly ever appear between November and May. During those months, keeping sufficient water levels in the reservoirs depends on the arrival of sporadic cold fronts that typically last seven to ten days.

“These cold fronts originate in the dry regions of continental Asia, then pick up some moisture when passing over the East China Sea,” explains Hsia Yue-joe, a professor of natural resources and environmental studies at National Dong Hwa University in Hualien. “But since this passage is short, the moisture stays below an altitude of 1,000 meters and drops mostly on the leeward side of the Central Mountain range, meaning around the Yilan area.”

As a result of this phenomenon, central and southern Taiwan respectively receive only 20% and 10% of their annual rainfall during the period from late autumn to early summer.

Hsia cites the steepness of Taiwan’s mountain slopes and the shortness of its rivers as additional factors contributing to water scarcity, since even when rainfall occurs it tends to “escape into the ocean very fast.” But man-made factors also play a significant role. Illegal farms and other illicit economic activity in the mountain areas bring more landslides, washing loose soil into the reservoirs and causing severe sedimentation that reduces the capacity of the reservoirs for storage.

“We have 90,000 legal factories, thousands of illegal ones, and hundreds of landfills located near rivers, but only 4% of Taiwan’s territory is served by sewage systems,”

The damage done by construction of illegal B&Bs and other tourism facilities in the mountains was shown clearly in the documentary film Beyond Beauty – Taiwan from Above. Mining firms conducting mountaintop excavations are often found to exceed volume caps and control measures.

“We’ve already lost one-third the capacity of existing reservoirs due to sedimentation, and by 2030 it will be 50%,” says Lee Hong-yuan, a former Minister of Interior who is now a National Taiwan University (NTU) professor of civil engineering, specializing in water projects. “Removing the sediment is not feasible due to the remoteness of the sites and the sheer quantity of material,” he adds. “As transportation vehicles cannot easily gain access, the removal of one cubic meter would set us back NT$1,000, but we are talking about billions and billions of tons of sediment.”

 

Cloud seeding calcium chloride Miaoli
Cloud-seeding rockets containing calcium chloride being set off at Mingde Dam in Miaoli.

Contamination and subsidence

Pollution exacerbates the challenge. Due to rapid economic development that for decades has not been accompanied by investment in sewage systems, waste water containing industrial toxins as well as agricultural fertilizers and pesticides flow directly into Taiwan’s rivers and lakes, resulting in the widespread contamination of ground water.

“We have 90,000 legal factories, thousands of illegal ones, and hundreds of landfills located near rivers, but only 4% of Taiwan’s territory is served by sewage systems,” says Du Yu, chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform, a group of university professors promoting sustainable farming. Because so much ground water has been contaminated, an excessive quantity tends to be pumped in areas where the water is cleaner. The resulting land subsidence destroys infrastructure and also spoils farmland as seawater intrudes on the lowlands during typhoons, leaving fields too salty for plants to grow. Some places in central and southern Taiwan have already sunk to two meters below sea level.

In addition, National Dong Hwa University’s Hsia points to a broader systematic issue. “Much of the problem has to do with the Water Resource Agency belonging to the MOEA, meaning that the decision where the sparse resources go is always done out of purely economic considerations,” he says. “In other words, it’s always the industrial parks that get the water at the expense of irrigation.”

Hsia elaborates that while water used for irrigation will soak into the ground, water diverted to industrial or urban use will eventually be discharged into the ocean, causing the ground water level to drop in the long run.

As an example of what he considers to be a misguided policy, he notes that the Southern Taiwan Science Park in Tainan was built in the Lee Teng-hui era “against all scientific recommendations” that reflected concern over the uneven water supply in that area. “They discarded all warnings because they wanted to balance economic development in the north and the south, which is purely a political issue,” Hsia says.

Structural change may be coming, however. A plan to transfer the Water Resource Agency from the MOEA to a proposed new Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources is currently before the Legislative Yuan, but “will not necessarily be passed in 2015,” says the Water Resource Agency’s Lai.

As mentioned above, increased pumping of ground water as a means of alleviating the water shortage is now being restricted because of the impact on land subsidence. The construction of new reservoirs is also not an option, due to the lack of additional suitable sites, nor is it feasible to carry water in pipelines from east to west across the steep Central Mountain Range.

As long as Taiwan’s water prices continue to be among the world’s lowest, industries will find little incentive to switch to recycled water, which currently costs NT$17 per cubic meter, compared to only NT$10 for tap water, less than 10% of what most Europeans pay.

NTU’s Lee maintains that the best option is the large-scale recycling of household waste water to make it suitable for industrial purposes. “There are eight projects under construction by the Water Resource Agency, which we hope can eventually recycle 50% of Taiwan’s daily wastewater output of 1.86 million tons,” he says. “Industry consumes 16% of our total water supply, and if we can replace that 16% with recycled water, it’d be a significant step in relieving the shortage.” According to the Water Resource Agency’s Lai, the first of these plants will be completed in Kaohsiung around the end of 2016.

It is questionable, however, whether recycled water will be cleared for irrigation and household use. Gene You, an associate professor at the NTU’s Department of Civil Engineering, says that most consumers in Taiwan, as well as in the United States, are uncomfortable with the idea of using recycled water, and that Taiwan’s farmers don’t like the idea either. So while the idea makes environmental sense, You says “the shift to recycled water will require a considerable effort in terms of communication.”

Lee stresses another weighty stumbling block – the cheap cost of water in Taiwan. He argues that as long as Taiwan’s water prices continue to be among the world’s lowest, industries will find little incentive to switch to recycled water, which currently costs NT$17 per cubic meter, compared to only NT$10 for tap water, less than 10% of what most Europeans pay. According to a rough estimate, Taiwanese spend 0.6% of their disposable income for water supply, compared to 1.3% for South Koreans and 2.9% for Japanese.

“Only if we increase the tap water rates by two or three times the current prices will the private sector, including foreign companies, be interested in investing in our water recycling plants,” Lee says. “We’ve been talking about this for years already. The politicians always stop the discussion with the argument of ‘not wanting to increase the people’s burden.’”

Other than such political considerations, he says, nothing stands in the way of promoting greater use of recycled water, as “its quality is better than water in most irrigation systems.”

 

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