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Island of Taiwan in grasp of major drought

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Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2021. 8:55 am CST.

By Aaron Humes: A lack of rain over the past year has sent the island of Taiwan into its worst drought in more than half a century, the BBC reports, with many of its reservoirs at less than 20 percent capacity, with water levels at some falling below 10 percent.

Normally one of the wettest places in the world with a tropical to subtropical climate, no typhoon or monsoon hit the island last year and there has been little rain.

The lack of water is hurting a key industry – semiconductors, computer chips – made by Taiwanese companies. Around 90% of the most advanced microchips are manufactured in Taiwan, key to objects ranging from ventilators to smartphones and valued at US$100 billion.

The sector requires a lot of water to clean the wafers that go into many tech devices. Struggling to ensure supplies, the government stopped irrigating more than 74,000 hectares of farmland last year. It has also turned off the tap for residents and businesses in three cities and counties, including one of its biggest municipalities, Taichung, two days a week.

In dry areas, high-volume industrial users including semiconductor manufacturers have been asked to reduce water usage by 13%, and non-industrial users, such as hair salons and car wash businesses, by 20%.

Farmers have been the hardest hit, with compensation unevenly distributed among farmers and landowners. The government has been encouraging young people to go into farming as Taiwan’s farmers are ageing, but young farmers are now left with no way to farm after they’ve invested in equipment and land.

Experts say Taiwan should have seen the warning signs: one says there has been a significant decrease in the number of rainy days annually since the 1960s. In parts of the island, the number of rainy days each year has fallen by about 50. And a warming trend in the Indian Ocean since 1950 may have brought about the Pacific Ocean’s high pressure system last year, which prevented rain from falling in June and reduced the number of typhoons that were formed, according to experts.

Taiwanese people’s tendency to take water for granted – and some would say the government’s neglect of how water resources are managed – are at the root of the shortage, according to people who have looked into the problem.

Leaking pipes have caused Taiwan to lose nearly 14 percent of its water (down from 20 percent a decade ago). Deforestation has also led to soil runoff when it does rain, leading to sediment build-up in the reservoirs, depriving them of their capacity to collect more water during rainy periods, for use in dry spells.

Water prices are incredibly low – US$0.39 a ton, second lowest among 35 countries and territories surveyed; half the cost of South Korea’s rate, four times lower than that of the U.S. and six times lower than costs in the U.K.

The Water Resources Agency says: “Due to the economic and social development and the fairness of social resources, it is still being carefully evaluated and there is no mature adjustment plan for the time-being.”

Instead, it’s looking at Taiwan’s surrounding waters for solutions, planning to build more seawater desalination plants. Most are located in outlying islands, with only three on Taiwan’s main island. A new facility has been built in Hsinchu to deal with the current drought, but it can only treat 13,000 tons of water daily, a drop in the bucket compared to the 170,000 tons used each day just by Hsinchu Science Park, where many semiconductor makers are based.

Desperate for rain, the government has tried to manipulate nature by carrying out cloud seeding numerous times, while officials from the Irrigation Agency held a rain worshipping ceremony in early March at which they prayed for help from Mazu, a sea goddess in Taoist and Buddhist traditions.

It’s hoping the annual rainy season, which normally lasts from mid-May to mid-June, will bring lots of showers. For now, people with no tap water fill up their buckets twice a week in advance, or fetch water from tanks set up on the street on the off days.

 

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