Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake is so low that parts of it have dried up to grass. The piers that normally float are awkwardly strewn on land, and the tourist boats are crammed onto the ends of the pontoons still in the water.
Usually one of the most famous tourist destinations on the island, the lake has recently become a star of another kind. After the worst drought in 56 years, it is now famous for all the wrong reasons. These days, Instagram influencers photograph themselves posing in a powder-colored pot half buried in the bed of a cracked and cratered lake.
Earlier this month, the resurgence of a long-lost mobile phone (that still worked) made international news, while China’s hawkish tabloid the Global times, seized the discovery of a suspicious tombstone from the Qing Dynasty to reinforce the mainland’s claims of sovereignty over Taiwan.
But far from the outrageous headlines, the situation is dire. Other reservoirs in central and southern Taiwan are effectively empty, down to 5% or less. Last week, there were reports of massive fish kills, a phenomenon seen in Australia’s drought.
Taiwan has had a drought before, but observers hope that the severity of the drought, which has lasted 18 months and threatens the economic livelihood of Taiwan’s semiconductor production, is enough to spur real action on climate change.
Taiwan relies heavily on seasonal typhoons to fill reservoirs, but in 2020 none made landfall. And it could happen again.
Dr. Huang-Hsiung Hsu, executive director of Academica Sinica’s anthropogenic climate change center, says studies have suggested “fewer but stronger typhoons, drier springs, fewer rainy days, and higher intensity of rainfall in the warmer future, in addition to the expected significant increase in temperature and heat waves as in the whole world ”.
“[This will] they mean an increased risk of water scarcity and natural disasters such as floods and landslides. ”
He said governments have not been sincere in their commitment to climate crisis policy and joined other observers who say the government is not prepared for the future.
There are plans to redirect rivers and build reservoirs, but in response to the current crisis, authorities have closed swimming pools, saunas, and car washes, ordered companies to reduce water use, and some counties, including Taichung on the east coast. , they are preparing to remake decades. -old wells.
There have been mass prayer events to the god Matsu, and government scientists have carried out what Hsu calls the “immature technology” of cloud seeding. Many people across the island are under strict restrictions, with the tap water turned off in entire areas for two days a week.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Dino Chang fills every available container in the house with water, including a baby bath in the corner of his bathroom. Chang even saves the water from the dehumidifier.
In her kitchen, the 43-year-old carefully separates water for washing and water for cooking, although during her two days without water, she and her husband tend to use UberEats. They also shower as late as possible.
If you calculate correctly, the stored water will last until the supply returns. If not, he will have to carry a bucket two blocks through his middle-class neighborhood of Taichung to a temporary emergency tank, which bears the sign: “Treasure the water sources, this is for living. If you steal it, there will be consequences. “
Observers say that few of the measures taken so far address the long-term perspective that Taiwan might not depend on typhoons in the future, and the official attitude avoids a central problem: the population pays too little for water while using too much. Water. that.
Residents are estimated to have some of the cheapest water in the world, consuming an average of 289 liters per day in 2020. Those in the capital, Taipei, used an average of 338 liters. This compares with 142 liters per day in the UK.
People and power are concentrated in Taipei, which draws its water from a clean and abundant reservoir and rarely suffers from such a shortage.
With prices so low, it’s hard to remember what’s going on elsewhere, unless you have to fill buckets every Wednesday. “People have no incentive to conserve, recycle or find innovative solutions,” says Thomas Liou of the Taichung urban planning department.
He says governments have long known that raising the price of water is electoral suicide. “Unless you have a crisis,” he adds, noting small increases after the 1999 earthquake. “This year might be the time to give it a try.”
Chang and his friends don’t want the price to go up, but they acknowledge that it probably should. Lai Yen-tso, 32, says leakage (16.8% in Taichung) is a bigger problem than liberal tap use in Taiwan. Rika Tseng, 37, says that if an electoral candidate actually ran on a higher water price platform, they would vote for them only because of their bravery.
The Ministry of Economic Affairs, one of the three departments with responsibilities related to water, acknowledged that the price was low and said that the government assumed much of the cost, but that the price was determined by a “complicated” legal process that involved to various departments.
“In principle, we must address people’s basic needs and widen the difference in water rates to encourage major water users to conserve more.”
One of those main users, the manufacturing giant TSMC, uses about 156 million liters a day. The company manufactures a large percentage of the world’s semiconductors – used in electronic products ranging from cars to telephones – and contributes 4% of GDP. The drought has sparked international concern over supplies.
TSMC is not subject to the two-day shutdowns, but companies have been told to cut usage by 15%. It is trucked on water to some places, and in recent years it has increased its conservation and recycling processes.
“TSMC has a long-established risk management system that covers the risk of water supply,” CEO CC Wei said at a conference earlier this month.
“Through our existing water conservation measures, we are able to meet the government’s current reduction requirement with no impact on operations.”
Seated around a dining table, Taichung’s friends manage to laugh a bit at their plight. They have refined their water storage since they rushed to buy panic containers four weeks ago, and Chang and Lai say they are getting used to it.
But Tseng, whose home and workplace are on opposite sides of the Taichung division, giving him four days a week of closures to deal with it, has gotten over it.
“When you are faced with water scarcity, you treasure the water,” she says. “When you don’t have it, you’re always thinking about the times you did it.”
On Thursday, the rain hit Sun Moon Lake. Although 24 hours of drizzle weren’t enough to end the drought, at least it rained.
“Taiwan is not a country without water,” says Liou. “We just don’t have good ways to retain and distribute it.”