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Prolongued Drought Brings Taiwan Water Rationing

Taiwan is weathering drought, rationing

The Boston Globe, June 5, 2002

TAIPEI -- At 4 a.m. last Friday the taps went dry in several borough's here of Taiwan's capital. There was no water for cooking, cleaning or bathing, except for the gallons residents had hoarded in rooftop tanks or plastic garbage bins.

It's the liquid equivalent of a rolling blackout, a water service shutdown that hits every home in Taipei once every five days. The campaign has gone on for three weeks now on weekdays, with more cutoffs to come. The goal: to stretch the city's drought-depleted water supply into June, hoping that the season's typhoons will then refill parched reservoirs.

It would take a brave mayor to order Americans to do without running water one day out of five. In Taipei, with a population of 2.6 million, the rationing scheme has roused plenty of political recriminations, but citizens seem willing to tolerate the seemingly intolerable.

Many Taipei homes already have reserve water tanks on their roofs to deal with the milder dry-season droughts of years past. The others stock up on plastic garbage bins that can hold about 26 gallons. They fill the bins with water on days when it's flowing from the taps. Water officials estimate that, even with the hoarding, they save 80 percent of the water that would have been used normally.

The restoration of water service brings a new problem: contamination. Many of Taipei's water pipes were built between 1895 and 1945, when the city was under Japanese occupation. They're old, cracked, and leaky. This doesn't matter so much when they're filled with pressurized water. But shut off the pressure, and dirty ground water can seep into the mains. Hundreds of Taipei residents have suffered bouts of vomiting and diarrhea after their water services were restored. The city is warning citizens to flush the pipes thoroughly after every shutdown and to boil water before drinking it.

None of this seems to trouble Dickson Wu. The 32-year-old banker lives downtown and has had his water cut off three times. But rather than rail against the city leaders and the national water authority, he fills his water barrel and shrugs.

By this time of year, there should already be plenty of rain, as the traditional dry season wanes and typhoon summer gears up. But Chen Shen-Hsien, deputy director of the nation's Water Resources Agency, said rainfall is at just one-third the normal level.

As a result, the water stored behind the vital Shihmen Dam is dangerously low. Already, it's almost at the minimum level needed to let water flow freely into the city system. If levels fall further, the city will have to use electric pumps to get water out of the reservoir.

So far, the water shortage has done little harm to Taiwan's massive microchip industry, even though silicon chip production requires massive amounts of water.

The city of Hsinchu, about an hour south of Taipei, has the country's biggest concentration of chip plants. Government and industry officials say rainfall in the Hsinchu area has been sufficient to prevent disruption at these factories.

''It's never been a really serious problem to us,'' said F. C. Tseng, deputy CEO of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., one of the world's largest chipmakers.

However, one local newspaper, the Economic Daily News, contends that the Hsinchu chipmakers have spent up to $29 million to purchase additional water to ensure that their plants keep running. And another paper, the Commercial Times, has reported that Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. are asking their Taiwanese suppliers to move more of their production in mainland China to avoid the effects of the drought.

The Taiwan government is looking for long-term solutions to the water crisis. Deputy director Chen says it's extremely difficult to build more water storage into the system. ''Right now, we cannot find good, suitable reservoir sites.''

But the government can lay pipe to pump water from the relatively moist southern end of the island. ''It will take a long time and spend a lot of money, but we will do that,'' said Chen.

The government also wants to issue contracts to private companies to build and operate plants to make seawater fit to drink.

But for now, Taipei's only resource is the patience and prudence of its citizens, who await the return of the long rains.

Taipei rations residential water to fight drought

Reuters News Service, May 14, 2002

TAIPEI - Taiwan's capital began yesterday to ration water for its three million residents for the first time in 22 years as the island suffers its worst drought in decades, Taipei's city government said.

But weather forecasters held out hope that much-needed rain could come this week to alleviate the drought, which has caused panic runs on bottled water in Taipei and sparked fears from hotels that they might lose customers.

Taiwan cut water supplies for car washes, swimming pools, saunas and other non-essential services from last Wednesday.

But with no major break in the drought, Taiwan extended the cuts yesterday to include general supplies to the capital's residents and businesses.

Taiwan's Silicon Valley, a key centre for the island's computer chip making industry, is not affected by any cuts, government officials said.

Under the latest rationing measures, Taipei's five districts will take 24-hour turns having their water supplies cut by 20 percent. About 420,000 households were affected yesterday.

"It's very inconvenient," insurance agent Chen Li-shui complained. "When clients come to visit, we can't make tea for them."

Shops and restaurants stored water in containers, while heavy users such as hotels and department stores turned to private operators to buy water.

"We will try to conserve water as much as possible. We use all kinds of containers to store water but the space is limited," said a vendor who sells omelettes and soya milk for breakfast.

But hotel operators feared they might lose customers if the drought persists.

"The closure of the swimming pool and sauna has already drawn complaints from customers," said a spokeswoman at a five-star hotel in downtown Taipei.

"If the drought continues, I am afraid foreign visitors will stop coming to Taiwan," she said.

Taipei's rainfall so far this year has been less than half of the average rainfall seen in the past 30 years.

Hopes now rest with seasonal May and June "plum rains", which fall when plum trees usually blossom, to fill reservoirs.

The Central Weather Bureau said the likelihood of rain was high in the next few days, triggering hopes life can return to normal.

FOREST FIRE

The dry weather was also hampering efforts to put out fires engulfing a mountain in central Taiwan, threatening some endangered landlocked salmon. Officials said the fire covered more than 100 hectares (247 acres).

Taiwan's Hsinchu science park, where many of the world's most sophisticated microchips are made, has not been hit by a water shortage and the government has pledged to make water supplies to the technology firms a priority.

Semiconductor plants require large amounts of water to cool equipment and maintain precise humidity in "clean rooms", where they lay down microscopic circuits on wafer-thin silicon chips.

Semiconductor companies can use water recycling technology to cut down their water use by as much as 80-85 percent in newer plants.

State-owned Chinese Petroleum Corp said yesterday it would consider scaling down operations at its northern Taoyuan refinery if the drought forced rationing of industrial water.

A slowdown in industrial production would be a blow to the island as it recovers from its worst economic recession.

Earlier this month, the island of Matsu, which is nearer to China than the main island of Taiwan, bought more than 2,000 tonnes of water from China, the first such contact since Taiwan split from China after the civil war in 1949.

Self-governing Taiwan is wary of over-dependence on China. The mainland views Taiwan as a breakaway province that must be reunified, by force if necessary.


Story by Alice Hung


Taiwan CPC may cut refinery output if drought lasts

Reuters News Service, May 14, 2002

TAIPEI - Taiwan's state-owned Chinese Petroleum Corp said yesterday it would consider scaling down operations at its northern Taoyuan refinery if the worst drought in decades forced rationing of industrial water use.

Chinese Petroleum would consider reducing output in the 200,000-barrel-per-day (bpd) refinery if water supply was cut by more than 25 percent, a company spokesman said.

Hit by the worsening drought, Taiwan began rationing water in early May, cutting supplies to car-wash operators, swimming pools, saunas and other non-essential services because rainfall has been far less than average this year.

However, the government has not yet limited water supply to the industrial sector, which the government has said would be a priority to receive water over residential and other users.

The spokesman said Chinese Petroleum's other two refineries and naphtha crackers in southern Kaohsiung county were operating normally.

Officials at private refiner Formosa Petrochemical Corp, whose 450,000 bpd refinery located in Mailiao in south-central Taiwan, were not immediately available for comment.

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE