Is Taiwan’s Ongoing Drought a Wake –Up Call for the Rest of the World?
Heena Samant, Research Associate, VIF

The increased frequency and severity of droughts across the globe is becoming a matter of huge concern. In 2018, the global media was flooded with the news of the capital city of Cape Town of South Africa running out of water as the city experienced once in 311 years drought with little to no rainfall for three consecutive years. Similarly, in 2019, the city of Chennai in India ran out of water after experiencing poor rainfall. A related situation is being experienced in Taiwan since the past 18 months. The country has been facing the worst drought in 56 years.1 While the country has seen droughts in the past, it’s the severity of it which has been concerning the experts.

A ‘drought’, in simple terms, is defined as a “period of time when an area or region experiences below normal precipitation. The lack of adequate precipitation, either rain or snow can cause reduced soil moisture or groundwater, diminished stream flow, crop damage, and a general water shortage.”2 Climate change which acts as a ‘threat multiplier’ is argued to make these situations worse as the greater the warming the lesser the precipitation there is, leading to severe drought like conditions.

According to BBC News, Taiwan is one of the rainiest places in the world and it experiences a subtropical climate in the northern and central regions, and a tropical one in the south.3 It is a country which is used to typhoons especially in the autumn and summer seasons.4 However, in the year 2020, no typhoon made a landfall in the country leading to extremely low reservoir levels which are heavily dependent on them for refilling purposes. Taipei is also argued to have experienced less rainfall during its spring rainy season.5 These extreme weather events did lead to its reservoirs across central and southern Taiwan to be almost empty. According to Greenpeace, the level of Baoshan Second Reservoir in the Hsinchu County decreased 96.2 percent between March 12, 2019 and March 12, 2021.6 Additionally, the Zeng-wen Reservoir in the Chiayi County decreased by 81.1 percent over a two-year period and the Techie Reservoir in Taichung is said to have decreased by 73.3 percent.7 The very famous Sun Moon Lake of the island, situated in central Taiwan is also set to have almost dried up and turned into grass.8 The areas to be hit the hardest from the drought are the central and southern Taiwan.9 As a result of this, water restrictions were put in place by the government in cities such as Taichung, Changhua, and Miaoli in April this year with no water available for two days in a week and tankers were sent to supply water to the residents.10 Apart from these, there was also ban on swimming pools, car washes and saunas and the government had also ordered companies to cut water use.11 Additionally, according to an article published in New York Times, the government of Taiwan in order to fight the drought was seen ‘drawing water from wells and seawater desalination plants, flying planes and burning chemicals to seed clouds above reservoirs, and halting irrigation over an area of farmland as the same size as New York’.12 Droughts of such large scale do have wide ranging effects and Taipei has been a witness to them. When in scenarios like these, water restrictions are put in place, it causes a lot of stress on society. It is stated that Taiwan’s agricultural as well as the tourism industry has been seriously impacted due to the ongoing drought. As reported by Greenpeace, the local governments across the island have reported loss of tens of millions of dollars in the agricultural sector and the tourism industry of the island which was already struggling due to the pandemic has been impacted further due to the drought.13

Another significant and probably one of the most important subjects associated with this drought is Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. The island is home to the world’s largest contract chipmaker, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC) which is situated in the cities of Hsinchu and Taichung, both of which are the hardest hit by the drought. Speculations were being made that the ongoing drought will have a huge impact on the industry as these semiconductor manufacturers require large amount of water for chip production. However, when restrictions for water use was introduced by the government, it did not affect the production and according to the company TSMC, ‘it had seen no impact on production from the drought and would continue to trim its water use and buy supplies from tanker trucks for some foundries’.14 It had also been announced by the government that if the island did not receive rainfall by 1st June, then further restrictions would be put on the companies to curb their water use.15 Moreover, Taipei also faced energy challenges as it experienced two major island wide blackouts in a span of a week in early May.16 In an article published in the Washington Post, it was mentioned that the electricity supplier had warned that the ongoing ‘drought and a heat wave were creating an energy crunch’, hence putting pressure on the existing energy supply.17

The Island, however, received the much-needed rainfall in end of May which led the officials to postpone the further water restrictions. Considering the fact that the production of microchips was not hampered because of water restrictions, there could have been one in case the country received no rainfall. There were discussions as to how the ongoing drought in Taiwan was capable of threatening the global supply of the microchips. According to an article published in BBC News, ‘Taiwan’s drought could have been detrimental for the semiconductor industry as many of the products people use are powered by semiconductors which are made by Taiwanese companies and around 90% of the most advanced microchips are manufactured in Taiwan’.18 It was also mentioned in the article that this had led to the United States being worried because of its over-reliance on the microchips being made overseas including Taiwan.19 However, the situation as of now has not reached to that point because of heavy rainfall hitting the island. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the time has come to celebrate yet, as according to the economy minister of the country, Wang Mei-Hua, the drought is not over and the government would be considering how further to address the water shortages.20

What does incidences like water crisis of Cape Town, Chennai, and now Taiwan depict? Extreme droughts are becoming more and more common as well as severe. In all three cases, it was rainfall which eventually saved them from devastation but the longevity of the dry spell did put extreme stress on the state and the society. According to research from Academic Sinica, spring rain in Taiwan is on track to decrease 13.2% by mid-century.21 Additionally, scientists have said that the frequency of typhoons in Taiwan is decreasing as global temperatures rise and by the end of the century the number of typhoons that reach Taiwan could be reduced to half.22 Many a times when situations like these arise, the immediate response by any government is to introduce water restrictions. This is a short-term solution. With so many cases of water shortages leading to a crisis like situation is being witnessed by the world, it is time to think out of the box. A long-term solution like diversifying water resources has become a necessity. Educating people to use water wisely and stressing on water conservation methods like rainwater harvesting is the need of the hour. Most importantly, it’s the carbon emissions which needs to be kept in check and the global temperature be maintained as per the Paris Climate Accord. Although the world seems to have moved in this direction, it’s the pace that matters and with the current momentum further warming seems inevitable, thus, making extreme droughts more common than a rare occurrence.

Endnotes
  1. Helen Davidson 2021. ‘Parched Taiwan prays for rain as Sun Moon Lake is hit by drought’, The Guardian, [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/09/parched-taiwan-prays-for-rain-as-sun-moon-lake-is-hit-by-drought [Accessed June 2021].

  2. Alexandra Cousteau. ‘Drought’, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, [Online] Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/drought/ [Accessed June 2021].
  3. Cindy Sui 2021. ‘Why the world should pay attention to Taiwan’s drought’, BBC NEWS, [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-56798308 [Accessed June 2021].
  4. Ibid.
  5. DW News 2021. ‘Taiwan drought could threaten global supply of electronic chips’, [Online] Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/taiwan-drought-could-threaten-global-supply-of-electronic-chips/a-57579184 [Accessed June 2021].
  6. Lena Chang and Erin Newport 2021. ‘Images reveal extent of Taiwan drought’, GREENPEACE, [Online] Available at: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/47795/images-reveal-extent-of-taiwan-drought/ [Accessed June 2021].
  7. Ibid.
  8. No 1.
  9. Emanuela Barbiroglio 2021. ‘No Water No Microchips: What is Happening in Taiwan?’, Forbes, [Online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/emanuelabarbiroglio/2021/05/31/no-water-no-microchips-what-is-happening-in-taiwan/?sh=6517e68722af [Accessed June 2021].
  10. Ben Blanchard and William Mallard 2021. ‘Taiwan lifts toughest water curbs as rain eases drought’, REUTERS, [Online] Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/taiwan-lifts-toughest-water-curbs-rain-eases-drought-2021-06-06/ [Accessed June 2021].
  11. No 1.
  12. Amy Chang Chien and Mike Ives 2021. ‘Taiwan Prays for Rain and Scrambles to Save Water’, The New York Times, [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/28/world/asia/taiwan-drought.html [Accessed June 2021].
  13. No 6.
  14. No 10.
  15. No 5.
  16. No 10.
  17. Eva Dou and Pei Lin Wu 2021. ‘Widespread blackouts hit Taiwan after power plant trips’, The Washinton Post, [Online] Available at:https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/taiwan-power-outage/2021/05/13/f1be2bc8-b3bf-11eb-bc96-fdf55de43bef_story.html [Accessed June 2021].
  18. No 3.
  19. Ibid.
  20. No 10.
  21. No 6.
  22. Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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