Lessons From the Drought

Following last month’s prolonged drought, Taiwan should seize the opportunity to reinvent and modernize itself for a sustainable future
Photo: Kmouse Chiu
Jenny Peng

Water from the Shihmen Reservoir (石門水庫) has been the Chung family’s livelihood for three generations. They live on the eastern outskirts of Longtan District (龍潭區) where their four-story home is among a row of houses lining Shihmen Road. The settlement is the last pit stop before visitors make a 10-minute drive to the mouth of the Shihmen Dam, where water flows into a vast fjord-like river surrounded by rolling mountain ranges.

Most people know Shihmen as one of largest reservoirs in Taiwan, supplying water to roughly 1.5 million households, mainly in Taoyuan and New Taipei City. The Chung family (on my mother’s side) has farmed and lived steps away from the water source for nine generations. For the families that have depended on it, the reservoir means more than the international headlines it has been making amid a nation-wide drought.

After the dam was built in 1964, spin-off businesses cropped up around the idyllic tourist destination. Seizing opportunities to supplement their farm work, Grandfather Chung would take the eldest of his four children, my mother, strapped with a tray of cold sodas and disposable film cameras urging mostly Taiwanese, and occasional American and Japanese tourists, to spend pocket change on their display.

The money was hard earned: long days basting under the searing sun and humidity that clung to their skin. But for the city and their village, the dam was a gateway out of rural poverty. They no longer relied on hard labor harvesting in paddy fields. There was nothing else to do in pre-industrial Taiwan, explains Grandfather, except looking after one’s own plot to feed the family.

So when construction of the dam created a need for workers, the then-24-year-old father of two seized his first paying job helping out with concrete repairs. After it was built, Grandfather used his savings and opened a convenience store next to their home selling to villagers and visitors on weekends and during national holidays. The harmonized gardens, parks and bicycle tracks designed around the reservoir were a retreat for residents living in densely populated cities.

Restaurants around the district thrived off the reputation of the reservoir. Down the street from the Chung family’s home and around town, several dozen restaurants competed for customers looking to try the elusive Shihmen “live fish” from the lake with elaborate multi-course meals. “The water used to be so clear before the dam was built,” Grandfather recalls. “There were many varieties of fish. It was so clean.”

In the mid-2000s, when apartments and residential areas on the low mountain range overlooking the river started appearing, Grandfather’s second child, along with her husband, bought property steps away from the river’s edge. They built their dream home — a sanctuary for their two daughters to grow up in. They also set their sights on increasing development on tracts of land around the reservoir.

The Earth God stone altar reappears. Photo: Kmouse Chiu

These days, you’ll see more swaths of dry soil patches than water. Relics like the Earth God stone worship altar at the river’s bottom have surfaced again. It was reportedly last seen 11 years ago. When the reservoir was healthy, Longtan District also prospered. Even if the prosperity was merely symbolic, water bursting from the stone gates was a reassuring sign that despite man’s shortcomings, nature’s greater intelligence could be counted on to provide.

The future of water resources at Shihmen and the country hangs in the balance. After 50 years of relative prosperity, we are seeing the end of Shihmen’s golden era, one that will live on in tales like my grandfather’s. Unless drastic measures at water conservation, investment in alternative energy sources, and infrastructure upgrades take place, climate change will intensify the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters.

According to a report sponsored by the National Science Council, the onset of climate change is shaping long-term weather patterns in Taiwan. This means more rainfall during the wet seasons, and less rainfall in the dry seasons. Scientists note that the number of rainy days is consistently decreasing.

“The average number of rain days in Taiwan … has decreased by 4 days per decade in the last 100 years and 6 days per decade since 1980,” the report states. “The 3 years with the least rain days in the last 100 years were 2002, 2003, and 2004 (when the last droughts occurred). Rain days have decreased in all four seasons, with summer showing the fastest decreasing rate.”

It continues: “Disasters that occur more frequently are primarily hydrometeorological disasters (floods, typhoons, slopeland disasters, and droughts). Which account for as much as 78% of all natural disasters of the last 10 years. The rise in hydrometeorological disasters is related to the increase of extreme climate and weather events as well as the rapid increase in population and economic development.”

Rain will come and go in the short-term, but the effects of climate change remain certain. Rather than a gloomy outlook for the future, it presents an opportunity for reinvention and innovation if we consider some of the lessons:

1. Re-evaluating our priorities: Do our actions reflect our priorities? Does pricing reflect what we value? Taiwan faces chronic underpricing of water — about a quarter of the global average, and lower than in Europe and the U.S. Consumption is above that of the U.S. and Europe, according to the Los Angeles Times. The excessively low cost have not been reformed for 21 years, which discourages water recycling in households, manufacturing facilities and refineries known to be heavy water users. The funds raised by cost increases could help pay for the repair and modernization of leaky infrastructure.

2. Adaptation is key to prevention: The Council for Economic Planning and Development released an adaptation strategy for climate change in 2012. It urged governments to develop technology, and to oversee resource management projects with climate change in mind. Recommendations include:

i.  Repairing and maintaining related facilities when needed, mostly to prevent unnecessary loss of water through leakage or during transportation;

ii.  Exchange programs to attract foreign expertise and feedback;

iii.  Converting farmland into woodlands to prevent agricultural pollutants like fertilizers and pesticides from contaminating reservoir water.

 3. Sustainability is the future: Reduce, reuse, and recycle. Sustainability comes down to three simple concepts. Although progress has been made in the industrial sector on water recycling (at an average rate of 60 percent), Taiwan still lags behind Japan, which has achieved rates of 64 percent. The real challenge lies in the agricultural sector, which accounts for 70 percent of water consumption in Taiwan.

Alarmingly, similar challenges in water resource management appeared as far back as 1994. The rains have returned to Taiwan and will provide temporary relief, but the country must not let the rain wash away the momentum to make progress on water and resource protection.


Jenny Peng is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist specializing in global affairs and international reporting.

2 Responses to “Lessons From the Drought”

May 25, 2015 at 4:21 am, dr. josefu deyama said:

Thank you Jenny. This is an important article at a crtical time for Taiwan. I have been trying to spread the word on sustainable energies as a necessity for Taiwan…and sustainable energies of peace, not death like the old poorly maintained nuclear plants made by the same people in the same way as the Fukushima plants .

I have recently returned from the UN disaster meeting near Fukushima and the situation is urgent. Dr. Helen Caldicott, the worlds premier anti nuclear activist nobel peace prize winning doctor, said during her visit here….You living here in Taipei are doomed!

There is now an incredible opportunity for Taiwan. WAVE and Tidal technology. Though Korea has taken a big leap into it by building the worlds largest, Taiwan is poised to become the worlds leader. We are surrounded by water and have the technology, workforce and infrastructure to build these all over. Providing 24 hours of energy, clean, sustainable and cheap exportable energy, this would be a total gamechanger.

I am advising and advocating this to the ministries of the interior and energy as well as to the next leaders.


May 25, 2015 at 11:49 am, Mike Fagan said:

“Even if the prosperity was merely symbolic, water bursting from the stone gates was a reassuring sign that despite man’s shortcomings, nature’s greater intelligence could be counted on to provide.”

The sight of large volumes of water being released from the reservoir, far from a sign of plenty, is actually a sign of shortage – a shortage of storage capacity, which reflects the limits of what could be engineered. Nontheless, the release of water from Shihmen reservoir is entirely the result of man’s intelligent manipulation, indeed engineering, of nature – not the other way around. “Nature” has no intelligence of its’ own (and does not require one), never mind a “greater” intelligence than man.

And even the image itself is wrong. The water does not “burst” from “stone gates”. The “burst” is a result of the water passing at high speed over the hydraulic jump at the end of the concrete spillway, and, despite the reservoir’s Chinese name, the six gates surmounting the spillway are actually hydraulic tainter gates built from steel alloys not stone. If they had been built from stone, how on earth would they have been made to open and close? The name “stone gate reservoir” has nothing to do with the spillway design but instead comes from the north and south “gates” giving access to the mountain peaks standing at the reservoir’s southwest corner, which is another story in its’ own right.


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