Taiwan aims to rein in water use amid unusual drought

Drought forces Taiwan to rethink water use, as well as reservoir and pipe maintenance

As a subtropical Pacific island, Taiwan normally gets a generous 98 inches of rain a year, keeping water prices so low that people seldom think twice about taking a long hot shower, let alone flushing the toilet.

But that relaxed relationship with water has dried up since February as Pacific Ocean temperatures have locked Taiwan into one of its most severe droughts in decades, prompting rationing last month in areas of the heavily populated west coast. In two cities and a county in northern Taiwan, 1.16 million households began receiving tap water just five days a week, restrictions that were lifted Wednesday for just over a week after a daylong storm.

In response to the drought, Taiwanese are reviewing their liberal use of water, as well as the government's management of heavily silted reservoirs, leaky pipes and rates that are below international standards.

"Actually, Taiwan has a lot of water," said Frederick Chou, a professor in the Department of Hydraulic and Ocean Engineering at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. "If you can find ways to adjust things, people could use a lot more of it."

A cold, dry band of air over the Pacific Ocean east of Taiwan kept rainfall to 65 inches last year, the island's Water Resources Agency says. That 67-year low and a dry winter have prompted Taiwan's government to begin rationing water on April 8. Those restrictions are saving 212,000 tons of water a day, according to news reports.

The industrial hub of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, with a population of 2.8 million, is threatened with water rationing. In other regions, pressure is reduced at night and factories are recycling more water or cutting back on its use for air conditioning, water agency spokesman Lai Chien-hsin said.

Taiwan is grappling with issues familiar to those in California, which is in its fourth year of drought. Gov. Jerry Brown last month announced the state's first mandatory water restrictions.

Taiwanese officials have been warning of possible rationing since last year, when they realized rainfall would be below normal, so the island had time to prepare.

In Xinzhuang, a suburb of Taipei where the government-run Taiwan Water Corp. restricted 170,000 people to deliveries five days a week until last week's hiatus, residents have been taking shorter showers, reusing bath water to mop floors and closing stores an extra day each week to ensure that their rooftop tanks don't empty on the two days when water is cut. Pipes that supply the tanks are shut off during those days. A two-ton, roof-mounted water tank serves about eight households.

Fang Dong-na, manager of the Hsian Tsao Bo milk-tea shop in Xinzhuang, reserves water after mopping the floor, saving it to mop again later. She shutters the store on Saturdays now, even though it means losing income.

She has another routine at home for conserving water. "After washing the dishes, we will leave it behind to reuse for flushing the toilets," Fang said. "It's not too dirty, so we can use it to mop our floors too. We just won't leave it around too long in case it attracts ants or mosquitoes."

In her borough of 5,100 people, few have complained about totally dry taps on off days, said borough chief Chen Tong-chu. In case of emergencies, the district government has captured enough rainfall to provide 15 tanks of water, though few people have used it since rationing began. The district also takes emergency supplies to the elderly.

"People know the government has prepared so they're not panicked," district Executive Li Cheng-hsun said.

The borough installed a two-ton tank of free water in a popular park and refilled it six times in the first two weeks of rationing.

Taiwan's drought has prompted the government to reexamine its water management practices as it faces criticism over leaky pipes and poorly built or inadequately maintained reservoirs that let water drain into the mud. Relatively low water rates leave the government with inadequate funds to fix pipes or dredge reservoirs, Chou, the professor, said.

Rates average $0.30 per ton in Taiwan, the government has found, about a quarter of the world average and lower than in Europe and the United States. On average, Taiwanese use 72 gallons of water a day, higher than consumption rates in Europe and the United States.

The island's 94 reservoirs stand at an average 50% capacity largely because of siltation, and a major site in northern Taiwan stands at a quarter of capacity. The Water Resources Agency is planning its largest-ever dredging effort, said Lai, the spokesman.

Water delivery pipes in Taiwan also leak 600 million to 700 million tons a year, local news reports say. Iron pipes should be replaced by plastic to retain more water, Chou said. But the water company must raise rates to improve pipes and reservoirs, despite possible opposition from farmers, who benefit from lower prices, he said.

"There are a lot of places that can improve," Chou said. "But the water price, it's one of lowest in the world, and that causes a lot of negative things to happen."

Rates are set to rise 10% to 30% next year for the island's 5,885 biggest users, which should bring $19.3 million in additional revenue, some of which would be used to compensate farmers hit by water shortages.

In Xinzhuang and elsewhere in Taiwan, governments are using public events and television spots to encourage homeowners to install low-flow faucets, a rarity on the island.

More seasonal afternoon thunderstorms this month and next could bring relief, but officials are already cautioning that further water delivery cuts may be in store if rainfall again is scant.

"What happens next depends on the rainfall situation," the Xinzhuang district executive said.

Jennings is a special correspondent.

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