The View from Taichung: Water, water? anywhere?: Taiwan's annual drought warnings

Taiwan's annual drought warnings are a consequence of public policy

Tsengwen Reservoir in southern Taiwan (Photo by Michael A. Turton)

The Taiwan papers carried a flood of news about the wave of expected water shortages in Taiwan. According to reports, the Water Resources Agency said that for the three months to the end of Jan, 2017, "rainfall in major water reservoirs in Taiwan was generally 1 percent to 46 percent lower than the average level in the same period in past years." 

Water shortages during droughts have become a regular feature of Taiwan life: from 2002 to 2014. Droughts are an inevitable feature of climate, but water shortages? They are driven by public policy.

Water in Taiwan is strongly mispriced. When Chen Shui-bian came to power, he vowed not to raise water prices, even though at that time water in Taiwan was cheaper than in Malawi. Such policies have been followed by subsequent administrations, and Taiwan's water prices remain at about one-fifth of the global average.

The regional disparity in water prices is even more striking: the government's tender care of Taipei is epitomized in the simple fact that Taipei has the lowest water prices in the nation. Until the price hikes in 2015 the Celestial Dragon Kingdom (天龍國), as locals sardonically call it, had not experienced a price rise in 21 years.

Why are prices so low? The cost of maintaining Feitsui Reservoir, which supplies the capital, is paid for by the central government, not the city, one of the many ways Taipei continues to be a colonial capital that maintains its lifestyle by draining resources from elsewhere in Taiwan.

Moreover, in all other localities, water is supplied by the central government water authority. Taipei, however, has its own autonomous water company.

And of course, the price hike in Taipei affected only high volume users. The majority of users (read: voters) experienced no price hike. Surprise, surprise.

With such low prices, it is inevitable that Taipei once experienced frequent water shortages. As any economist will say, when the price of something is lower than it should be, demand will be unreasonably high. Taipei has been combating the shortages by replacing its old water pipes with new pipes that don't leak as much, saving water equivalent to 40% of the volume of Feitsui Reservoir.

This has helped reduce the occurrence of water shortages in Taipei. It also saves the government the political cost of raising water prices.

Elsewhere the waste continues. The water price for industrial users in Taiwan is NT$11 per cubic meter, unchanged for two decades. In 2015, in response to prolonged drought, the government meekly decided to campaign to reduce water use from 270 liters a day per person all the way to 250, but this was a voluntary program, not mandatory.

By comparison, in the UK and Germany water use is already around 2/3 of that figure. The low water prices not only encourage waste, but as the EPA pointed out two years ago when it called for higher water prices, low prices discourage industrial recycling of water, and impede the development of new water-related technology. They also keep the water authority starved for funds, meaning that urgent infrastructure upgrades arrive slowly, if at all.

This problem is not going to go away. Deforestation in the mountains has had severe consequences for Taiwan water capacity. Afforestation programs have ameliorated the problem somewhat, but Taiwan's rivers have some of the highest sediment flows in the world. Global warming is exacerbating the problem.

An Academia Sinica analysis showed that the incidence of severe and extremely severe precipitation has increased 100% in just 45 years, much higher than the global average. By making extreme weather events more severe, it increases the silt flows into Taiwan's reservoirs, reducing their capacity and necessitating costly silt removal programs, like the NT$16 billion program to clean up Tsengwen and Nanhua Reservoirs after Typhoon Morakot.

At the same time, anthropogenic warming is reducing ordinary lighter rainfall events, especially across southern Taiwan. Over the last few decades locals have compensated for the loss of water falling from the sky by pumping it out of the ground at ever increasing rates.

In Pingtung, where less than half the households are on government water systems and well developed water pipe infrastructure remains lacking, pumped water has long been preferred because it is perceived to be cleaner. The result is widespread subsidence, especially along the coast, and a mess of unplanned water systems resistant to needed planning.

In the most recent round of droughts, in 2014-5, water had to be rationed in southern cities. Drought is also worsening in central Taiwan, the location of the fast growing city of Taichung. When water shortages occur in Taichung, as they inevitably must, the DPP Administration will take a share of the blame.

In parallel to its laudable energy polices, which include phasing out nuclear power and restructuring the power company to promote renewable energy use, the Tsai Administration should promote a comprehensive strategy of educating the public not merely about water conservation, but also to accept that prices will have to go up to fund sustainable water infrastructure and behavior. It will then have to implement concrete changes in the government's administration of water, putting a halt to industrial use of groundwater, making sure that rice fields are regularly flooded to enable water to percolate back to groundwater reservoirs to curb subsidence (not releasing agricultural water to "save" water is a false economy), and investing in new pipes, treatment plants, and other facilities.

Since the DPP will likely remain the ruling party for some time to come, given the current problems of the KMT and the lack of a viable third party, it will take the blame for the nation's future water woes. Action is needed now.

In the long run, global warming is going to create a drier Taiwan with more violent rainstorms, raising immense challenges for water management, industry, and agriculture. New thinking will be needed. Like so many other government policies, water policy in Taiwan has been a captive of the developmentalist state, which has long viewed cheap water as an imperative to maintain rapid economic growth. That era is over. It is time to leave its policies behind as well.  

 

Additional Refs

Taipei to raise water prices from March

Taipei water rates to go up in stages over three years

EPA calls for hike of 'unreasonably low' water price