Taiwan faces water wake-up call as climate change intensifies

Every year on May 8, the Japanese engineer Hatta Yochi is honoured as a deity for overseeing the construction of the Wushantou Reservoir and the Chianan Irrigation Canal that transformed Taiwanese agriculture a century ago by allowing the government to store and transport rainwater.

This year, however, as incense and flowers were left at a statute of Hatta at Wushantou, his beloved reservoir was at half capacity while others like it fell as low as 10 to 15 percent as Taiwan faced one of its worst droughts ever.

As an island, Taiwan is dependent on the annual typhoon season to bring enough rainwater to meet its domestic and industrial needs, but it was forced to scramble after a typhoon failed to hit last year for the first time in decades, worsened by limited rainfall.

Domestic water use was rationed while thousands of trucks transported water to supply its lucrative semiconductor industry, angering farmers because much of that water had been earmarked for them.

While Taiwan’s reservoirs were eventually refilled after heavy rain – so much so that it led to flooding in the south – experts have said the island’s recent troubles are just a taste of what is to come with climate change.

Typhoons meet about half of Taiwan’s annual water needs, but they will be less reliable as climate change has already begun to affect not only their pathway across the Asia Pacific, but also their intensity, according to a groundbreaking report released this month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Right now, the IPCC report says in the Pacific, typhoon pathways will go north and that means while on average three to four typhoons hit Taiwan now, it will maybe be less in the future. It’s a warning to Taiwan. Climate change is not only about this year next year but 10 years or 20 years later,” said Chi-Ming Peng, the founder WeatherRisk, Taiwan’s first private weather-focused company. “Every year, it’s the same cycle. When we have drought issues, we talk and push the government we need to do something. But later, when the rain comes, everything will stop.”

Thirsty agriculture, industry

Tackling Taiwan’s water crisis will be politically difficult for the government.

Their reservoirs can only hold 6.2 billion tonnes of water,  according to the Taiwan Water Resource Agency, but sediment takes up to 25 to 30 percent of capacity in many of them.

Building new dams would be politically unpopular due to their environmental damage, while cutting down on water would require tinkering with two of Taiwan’s biggest industries – farming and chipmaking.

More than two-thirds of the island’s water is used by the agricultural sector, much of which goes towards the twice-yearly cultivation of rice in flooded fields and tropical fruit.

Reducing water use would require farmers to adopt new methods of irrigation like precision irrigation, but this could be a challenge in an industry dominated by small-holders whose average age was 62 in 2015, according to Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture.

They also have had few incentives in the past to change because water was so cheap – with one tonne costing roughly 30 US cents.

Wang Yi-fung, the deputy director-general of the Water Resource Agency, told Al Jazeera the government is considering paying farmers to switch one of their rice harvests to a less water-intensive crop, and also plans to invest in smart irrigation gates that will reduce water leakage, another key issue in domestic and agricultural use.

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