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Epic drought in Taiwan pits farmers against high-tech factories for water

Zhang Meixue, head of a farmer's association in southern Tainan county, walks through one of her former rice paddies. Before the drought, the paddy would normally be filled with enough water to simultaneously raise ducks. Now she's growing flowers in the dried-out paddy to beautify the area and attract tourists.
Kathleen Feng
Zhang Meixue, head of a farmer's association in southern Tainan county, walks through one of her former rice paddies. Before the drought, the paddy would normally be filled with enough water to simultaneously raise ducks. Now she's growing flowers in the dried-out paddy to beautify the area and attract tourists.

TAINAN, Taiwan – In southern Taiwan, high-speed trains whoosh past now barren rice paddies, while overhead, the occasional Taiwan-made fighter jetroars by from the nearby airbase – a reminder that the island's storied agricultural way of life often existed harmoniously with the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing bases in the world.

Now, as the island faces one of its worst droughts in a century, both the rural and high-tech are competing for water.

"We barely have enough water and you're diverting even more for others to use," says Yang Kuanwei, a tomato farmer bemoaning government water policies in Taiwan's southern Tainan county, where chip giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, is building a state-of-the-art factory.

In 2021, an absence of seasonal typhoons left reservoirs so parched, chipmakers like TSMC were forced to truck in water to keep factories running.

Since then, the lack of typhoons has continued, depleting the island's reservoirs and forcing Taiwan's policymakers to make tough choices about how to allocate its remaining water reserves.

Paid not to grow rice

For the third year in a row, rice farmers in southern Taiwan have not been allowed to plant their crops. Instead, the government is paying them subsidies to not grow rice this season, because it uses scarce water that semiconductor plants nearby need. Taiwan's rice farmers have been subsidized to some extent ever since Taiwan entered the World Trade Organization and agreed not to export its main crop.

But while the rice farmers are being compensated, agricultural experts point out that the region's natural cycles have been thrown out of sync because of the abnormal weather.

"When there is no rain, things grow at the wrong time," says Zhang Meixue, head of one of the local farmer's associations in southern Tainan county, once one of the island's prime rice-growing areas. "Growing rice protects the local ecology by locking in moisture and keeping ground temperatures stable."

Zhang Meixue is the head of one a farmer's association in southern Tainan county, once one of the island's prime rice-growing areas. "Growing rice protects the local ecology by locking in moisture and keeping ground temperatures stable," she says.
/ Kathleen Feng
/
Kathleen Feng
Zhang Meixue is the head of one a farmer's association in southern Tainan county, once one of the island's prime rice-growing areas. "Growing rice protects the local ecology by locking in moisture and keeping ground temperatures stable," she says.

The heat and dryness have also exacerbated local pests, obligating farmers to use harsh strategies to control them. "Bugs spread disease, and normally a typhoon would reduce their numbers, but without typhoons, we rely on pesticides, which kills the bees," says Yang, the tomato farmer.

Nearby to Tainan is the Zengwen reservoir, one of Taiwan's largest. An astonishingly dry three years and an absence of Taiwan's usual typhoons means the reservoir is at a scary low: filled to just 11% of its capacity. Other reservoirs are similarly at just 20 or 30% capacity across the island, according to Taiwan's water resources agency, which tracks water levels in real time.

The Zengwen reservoir earlier in April. Low rainfall means it is filled at just 11% capacity this month. Its low water levels are ringed by a thick band of white – parched dry land left as the water recedes.
/ Kathleen Feng
/
Kathleen Feng
The Zengwen reservoir earlier in April. Low rainfall means it is filled at just 11% capacity this month. Its low water levels are ringed by a thick band of white – parched dry land left as the water recedes.

Farmers vs. factories

Industry currently uses about one tenth of the island's water (the vast majority still goes to agriculture). But as Taiwan builds new science parks and expands existing ones, more of the small island's water will go to industry – mostly to make semiconductors and steel.

The priority on semiconductor manufacturing development in Taiwan is not purely economic. Taiwan's global prominence as the top maker of the tiny silicon chips that go into all of the world's high-tech devices is seen by experts as a deterrent against hostile actions from neighboring China, making protecting the sector a national security issue.

Taiwan's semiconductor plants build the tiny computing chips that go into our iPhones and fighter jets and cars. Those same plants need huge amounts of water and power to etch and deposit tiny bits of metals and chemicals on silicon wafers.

To limit its water use, TSMC started began constructing its own water recycling plant in 2021 – another drought year - and it and many of Taiwan's biggest chip factories are cutting down water use by an average of 10 percent – unfortunately at a time when global demand for chips is growing.

"We need to be more smart," says Gene You, a civil engineering professor and water management specialist at National Taiwan University. He says Taiwan is being too accommodating to chip factory expansion, because it generates economic growth. "From my observation the policy is just, 'what you need we will give you, because the economy needs you,'" he said. "I don't think that is a good way [to manage water]."

Many of Taiwan's cities are also limiting residential water use at night by reducing water pressure during certain hours. The hardest hit areas in the island's south are cutting tap water off for two days each week.

But Yang, the tomato farmer, believes that when faced with tough choices, Taiwan should prioritize its farmers in addition to its lucrative semiconductor factories.

"A country needs to rely on its own food supply. It is a form of security. We cannot import everything we eat," says Yang.

Hoping for the plum rains

Taiwan has an unlucky combination of factors: heavy seasonal rains but very little reservoir storage capacity because of Taiwan's mountainous and sediment-heavy topography. That leaves the island heavily-dependent on frequent typhoons and storms to replenish water supplies.

Water authorities have tried cloud seeding – dispersing small particles in the sky – to stimulate rain and set off flares near reservoirs in an attempt to attract precipitation, all to no avail. Authorities have also been dredging reservoirs, removing sediment accumulation so the reservoirs can store more water in the future.

However, those efforts are in vain if rainfall remains low. Just how long water rationing lasts depends on whether April and May bring the so-called plum rains — seasonal storms that come during the plum harvest.

Lin Qingshu, a third generation plum farmer in Tainan county, does not think those rains will come. Her fruit orchards rely entirely on rainfall levels, and with few storms passing through, "our plums this year will be stunted" — they won't grow to maturity. "They bloomed plentifully but there is no water," she said.

She surveys what is left of the Zengwen reservoir, its low water levels ringed by a thick band of white – parched dry land left as the water recedes.

"Coming up myself and seeing the reservoir, I can see the situation is really severe. It hurts my heart," she sighs.

It sprinkled a few days ago and Lin says she was so hopeful, she nearly cried.

"Us farmers have a saying that we look at the sky for sustenance," she explains – meaning their livelihoods depend on good weather. In this case, that means a good rain.

Hugo Peng contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.