Why the world should pay attention to the drought in Taiwan

A man scoops water from a bathtub that stores water distributed during a drought throughout the island in Hsinchu, Taiwan, on March 12, 2021.

In some parts of Taiwan affected by water rations, residents store water in bathtubs

Taiwan is considered to be one of the wettest places in the world. Its climate is subtropical in the north and central, and tropical in the south. Typhoons are common in summer and autumn, and monsoons also occur. It rains a lot here, so we put umbrellas at subway stations and shops so that anyone can rent them.

But last year something strange happened. The typhoon did not hit the island. And it hasn’t rained much this year.

It put Taiwan in the worst drought in 56 years. Many of the reservoirs have a capacity of less than 20% and some have a water level of less than 10%.

Hsinchu County’s Baoshan No. 2 Reservoir, the main source of water for Taiwan’s $ 100 billion semiconductor industry, has the lowest water level ever, with only 7% water.

Tourists will visit the Baoshan No. 2 Reservoir in Hsinchu, Taiwan on March 6, 2021 in low water levels during the entire island drought.

Tourists visit Hsinchu’s depleted Takarayama No. 2 Reservoir

When this reservoir and other reservoirs in Taiwan are depleted, many of the products people use are powered by semiconductors (computer chips) made by Taiwanese companies, which could have a negative impact on the global electronics sector.

About 90% of state-of-the-art microchips are manufactured in Taiwan.

They are the key to objects from ventilators to smartphones, and pandemics are in high demand and tight supply. The United States is currently concerned about excessive reliance on chips manufactured abroad, including Taiwan.

Although this sector contributes significantly to the island’s economy as a whole, it requires large amounts of water to clean the wafers used in many technical equipment. Struggling to secure supply, the government stopped irrigating more than 74,000 hectares of farmland last year.

We also turned off the use of residents and businesses in three cities and counties, including Taichung, one of the largest municipalities, two days a week.

In arid areas, large numbers of industrial users, including semiconductor manufacturers, are required to reduce water usage by 13%, and non-industrial users such as hair salons and car wash businesses are required to reduce by 20%.

Farmers have been hit hardest.

As thousands of crop planters cross Taiwan, Hsinchu’s fourth-generation rice farmer, Chuang Cheng-deng, was forced to leave seven hectares of land fallow.

“We are also thinking about the economy of the country, but they should not stop supplying water altogether. You can water us two or one day a week. Farmers Will find a way. Can’t find a solution. You’re completely focused on semiconductors, “says Chuang.

Taiwanese farmer Chuan Chenden pours dry land into rice fields with his fingers

The rice fields of the peasant Chuang Cheng-deng are now just soil

The government is compensating the farmers, but Mr. Chuan said that many landowners are receiving subsidies instead, and the farmers cannot oppose them for fear of not being able to rent the land. Even if they make money, they run the risk of damaging their brand and losing the customers they have worked hard to build by not growing their products.

He points out that as Taiwanese farmers age, the government has encouraged young people to enter agriculture, but young farmers have no way to farm after investing in equipment and land.

“Farmers feel really helpless,” says Chuan, sadly looking at the dry irrigation canals that flow through his fields.

Experts say Taiwan should have seen signs of warning.

“Taiwan has seen a significant reduction in rainy days each year since the 1960s,” said Hsu Huang-hsiung, a climate change expert at the government-funded think tank Academia Sinica.

In some parts of the island, the number of rainy days decreases by about 50 days each year.

According to experts, the warming trend of the Indian Ocean since 1950 may have caused high pressures in the Pacific Ocean last year, preventing rainfall in June and reducing the number of typhoons.

“Climate change was not the center of our government and social debate. Everyone talks about fear of climate change, but it tends to be a verbal service. They pay attention. But we take no action, “says Sue.

Cracks in a former rice field during the fallow of Peasant Chuan

Farmer Chuang Cheng-deng’s former rice fields are cracked and fallow

According to those who investigated the problem, the tendency of Taiwanese people to take water for granted (and the government’s negligence in managing water resources) is at the root of the shortage.

“Looking at Taiwan as a whole, there is plenty of rainfall. The question is how we use water,” said young farmer Kuo Yurin. “The first problem is that our pipes leak water. Another problem is how we move water from one place to another. The east enjoys some so the government I don’t know if I’m considering moving water from the east to the west of Taiwan. It rains for months every year, but Hsinchu and its north have very little rain. “

Due to a pipe leak, Taiwan has lost nearly 14% of its water. Deforestation also drains soil when it rains, accumulating sediment in reservoirs and depriving them of the ability to collect more water for use in dry spells during the rainy season.

The government has tackled these issues. For example, pipe leak rates have dropped from 20% 10 years ago.

But Taiwan’s infamous water prices, which have been accused of giving consumers little incentive to save water, seem unmanageable. Some say it’s because raising prices is very unpopular and politicians are afraid to do so because they don’t want to lose their votes.

Taiwan’s water rates are NT $ 11 per ton (US $ 0.39; £ 0.27), the second lowest of the 35 countries and territories surveyed. It’s half the price in South Korea, one-fourth in the United States and one-sixth in the United Kingdom.

“For economic and social development and fairness of social resources, it is still being carefully evaluated and there is no mature adjustment plan for the time being,” said the Water Resources Agency.

Instead, they are looking for a solution in the waters surrounding Taiwan and are planning to build more seawater desalination plants. Most are on remote islands, and there are only three on the main island of Taiwan. A new facility was built in Hsinchu to combat the current drought, but it can only treat 13,000 tonnes of water per day, and the Hsinchu Science Park, where many semiconductor manufacturers are located, alone has 170,000 tonnes per day. There are fewer buckets than the one used. base.

The government was desperate for rain and tried to manipulate nature with many artificial rains, but Irrigation Agency officials held a rain worship ceremony in early March and are the Taoist and Buddhist traditional sea goddess. I prayed for the help of my ancestor. ..

On March 7, 2021, during a religious ceremony at Jenlan Temple in Taichung, Taiwan, people with jossticks prayed for rain on the sea goddess Mazu in the drought of the entire island. I am.

People praying for rain to the sea goddess Mazu at Jenlan Temple in Taichung, Taiwan

We hope that the annual rainy season, which usually lasts from mid-May to mid-June, will bring a lot of light rain.

But it should not be disappointing. By May of last year, the rainy season had ended and it did not rain enough.

For now, if you don’t have tap water, you can either fill the bucket with water twice a week in advance or draw water from a tank on the street on holidays.

TSMC and other chip makers are planning the worst. They recycle more of the water they use-TSMC says it recycles over 86%. The company also buys trucks of water from construction sites and elsewhere. So far, it states that its operations have not been affected.

Kuo Yao-cheng, a spokesman for the Water Resources Agency, says everyone must be involved to resolve this issue.

“The government is taking steps to address these issues … especially climate change leads to inadequate rainfall, so we have to think about how all sectors can save water.” Guo says.

Farmerchuan has been working on growing watermelons and sunflowers, which require less water. He pumps groundwater from wells dug on his farm to water the plants. But he says that sacrificing agriculture every time a drought occurs only worsens Taiwan’s already low food self-sufficiency, the amount of food consumed by locally grown and unimported people. I believe.

“We have to find a long-term solution to this problem,” says Chuang.

If Taiwan does not face this challenge, both its farm and its valuable semiconductor industry are expected to suffer in the coming years.