Experts suggest that water-saving and management, as well as environmental protection, should be the priority as Taiwan is in the process of adopting several measures to cope with water shortages following a particularly dry year in 2020.
Last year marked the first time since 1964 that a typhoon did not hit Taiwan during flood season which is from May to November, said Wang Yi-feng (王藝峰), deputy director-general of the Water Resources Agency (WRA). As a result, there were only 661 millimeters of rainfall from June to November, an all-time-low, compared with average annual rainfall in the period of 1,635 mm, WRA data showed.
During the fall, Feitsui Reservoir in New Taipei and Shihmen Reservoir in Taoyuan saw their water storage level fall to 48 percent and 43 percent, respectively, according to the agency. In response, the government introduced a raft of measures, including ceasing water supplies for agricultural irrigation in some regions south of Taoyuan.
An additional NT$1.4 billion (US$49.8 million) has been budgeted by the Executive Yuan to improve the storage, distribution, and manage water resources, which is expected to increase supplies by 780,000 metric tonnes. The measures, likely to be in place by February this year to meet the dry season, also include new practices like the more extensive use of recycled effluent and desalination of seawater, Wang said.
About 425,000 metric tonnes of wastewater is provided to 65 stations across the island each day for irrigation, industrial water, and other uses, Wang said.
Meanwhile, a seawater desalination plant being built in Hsinchu is expected to generate 13,000 metric tons of water every day upon completion, roughly the amount needed for 50,000 people, according to Wang. Water shortages could become a more frequent occurrence in Taiwan in the future due to climate change, he said.
The fact that Taiwan has uneven rainfall distribution between dry and flood seasons, as well as its mountainous terrain, only makes it more difficult to collect and store the rain, he added. "The challenge of water resources for Taiwan is as prominent as that for Saharan countries," Wang said, noting that the average amount of annual per capita precipitation in Taiwan is 4,000 metric tonnes, 20 percent lower than the global average.
In response, experts said there should be long-term planning to deal with the situation. Wang Chung-ho (汪中和), an Academia Sinica researcher in earth science, said water conservation is both easier and more important than the establishment of more water storage facilities.
For instance, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. recycles 90 percent of its industrial water, Wang said. If 60 percent of Taiwan's industrial wastewater was recycled and used, it would be equivalent to the annual supply from Tsengwen Reservoir, the largest reservoir in Taiwan, Wang said.
Former Minister of the Interior Lee Hong-yuan (李鴻源) agreed, saying Taiwan cannot afford to build more reservoirs, and should instead focus on recycling wastewater. Water rates in Taiwan are also too low, Lee argued, as they are between one-sixth and one-fourth of the global average.
Wang continued by saying that soil and water conservation practices, particularly in the Central Mountain Range, should be prioritized over economic development. "If a person is not healthy, he or she can't develop well," Wang said.
Finally, there is room for improving water resource management, such as transporting water surpluses in the north to areas in need in the south as the latter area is more prone to water shortages, according to Wang.
Although Taiwan currently applies some of these practices, they are undertaken on a small scale, such as between neighboring counties and cities, Wang from the WRA said. The WRA has re-allocated a record high of 580 million metric tonnes of water since 2020, according to its data.
Transporting water a longer distance is technically workable, but costs a lot due to the mountainous terrain across the country, he said. However, given the possibility of increasingly regular water shortages in the future, such methods need to be considered, he said.