Taiwan prays for rain and scrambles to save water

A months-long drought has nearly drained Taiwan's major reservoirs. PHOTO: REUTERS

TAICHUNG, TAIWAN (NYTIMES) - Ms Lin Wei-Yi once gave little thought to the water sluicing through her shower nozzle, kitchen tap and garden hose.

But as Taiwan's worst drought in more than half a century has deepened in recent weeks, Ms Lin, 55, has begun keeping buckets by the taps.

She adopted a neighbour's tip to flush the toilet five times with a single bucket of water by opening the tank and directly pouring it in. She stopped washing her car, which became so filthy that her children contort themselves to avoid rubbing against it.

The months-long drought has nearly drained Taiwan's major reservoirs, contributed to two severe electricity blackouts and forced officials to restrict the water supply.

It has brought dramatic changes to the island's landscape: The bottoms of several reservoirs and lakes have been warped into cracked, dusty expanses that resemble desert floors. And it has transformed how many of Taiwan's 23.5 million residents use and think about water.

"We used too much water before," Ms Lin said this week in the central city of Taichung. "Now we have to adapt to a new normal."

No typhoons made landfall in Taiwan last year, the first time since 1964. Tropical cyclones are a prime source of precipitation for the island's reservoirs.

Some scientists say the recent lack of typhoons is part of a decades-long pattern linked to global warming, in which the intensity of storms hitting Taiwan has increased but their annual frequency has decreased.

Ordinary rainfall has also been drastically lower than normal this year, particularly in the central region that includes Taichung, a city of 2.8 million people and the second-largest on the island.

The water shortage could begin to ease this weekend if heavy rain arrives on Saturday, as some forecasters predict. But as at Friday (May 28), the water levels at two main reservoirs that supply Taichung and other central cities were hovering between 1 per cent and 2 per cent of normal capacity.

In a few cases, the usual residents of the island's lakes and reservoirs - fish - were replaced by other species: tourists and social media influencers taking pictures of the visually startling terrain for Instagram posts.

In one of the most photogenic locations, Sun Moon Lake, a reservoir in central Taiwan, the receding waterline has revealed tombstones that historians say may date to the Qing dynasty.

"It's been meltingly hot in Taichung for a while now," said Mr Huang Ting-hsiang, 27, a chef who works out of his home and stopped cooking last month for lack of water. "The images of the dangerously low levels at those reservoirs are scary, but there's nothing we can do."

To fight the drought, the government has been 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 nearly the size of New York City.

It has also severely restricted residential water deliveries. In Taichung and other hard-hit cities, the taps have been cut off for two days a week since early April. Some residents have low water pressure even on the other days.

Officials have said the curbs will become more severe from Tuesday if the heavy rainfall that is expected over the weekend does not materialise.

Professor Lo Shang-Lien from the Graduate Institute of Environmental Engineering at National Taiwan University said the current restrictions were necessary in part because people on the island tend to use a lot of water.

In Taichung, the daily rate of domestic consumption per person is 283 litres, according to government data from 2019. In capital Taipei, it is 332 litres per day. By contrast, average residential water consumption in Europe is about 144 litres per person per day and 310 litres in the United States, according to official estimates.

A water truck receiving underground water near a construction site in Taichung in March. PHOTO: AFP

Prof Lo said Taiwan's water usage was relatively high in part because its water prices - some of the lowest in Asia, according to Fitch Ratings - incentivise excess consumption.

"Given all the extreme climatic events of recent years, water policies have become something that we need to reconsider and replan," he said.

Raising those prices would be politically sensitive, though, and a spokesman for the Water Resources Agency said that the government had no immediate plans to do so.

For now, many people in Taiwan are watching the skies and praying for rain.

In one sign of the public mood, more than 8,000 social media users tuned in to a recent government livestream of an hour-long afternoon thunderstorm at a reservoir in northern Taiwan.

A bubble tea shop in the northern city of Taoyuan said it would stop serving ice with drinks until the water restrictions were lifted. And in Taichung, irrigation officials held a rain-worshipping ceremony at a temple - the first such event there since 1963 and only the fourth since the temple was built, in 1730.

For the Taichung resident Ms Lin, dishes are cleaned in an assembly line of metal pots with dishwater that she arranges from dirtiest to cleanest.

"I still need to wash whatever I need to wash, but now every drop needs to be used twice," she said.

For the first few weeks of the water rationing, some people looked for ways to escape life without running water. Ms Lin went sightseeing in the eastern city of Hualien and visited one of her daughters in Taipei. Others went bathing in hot springs.

A man scoops water from his bathtub, where he stores water amid the water rationing, in Hsinchu. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Lin Ching-tan, who owns Kylin Peak Hotspring resort in Taichung, said he had lowered the admission price by half, to about US$5 (S$6.60) as a humanitarian gesture. He also started bathing at work before going home in the evenings.

"If you don't have water to take a shower, it can be torture," he said.

But as the government restricts movement in an effort to fight Taiwan's most severe coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic, more of the island's residents are stuck at home, looking for creative ways to make scarce water supplies last longer. On Facebook and other social media platforms, people have been sharing water-saving tips, including how to flush toilets more efficiently or install a second rooftop water tank.

Mr Huang, the chef, said he and his family have a system for storing water in buckets, pots and tanks before their taps run dry every Tuesday and Wednesday. They also try to order takeout so that they would not have to use water for cooking, he added, although their favourite restaurants and food stalls sometimes close for the same reason.

People praying to the sea goddess Mazu to wish for rain at Jenn Lann Temple in Taichung on March 7, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Lin's system includes placing a plastic container under her feet while showering, then flushing the toilet with it.

This week, on her balcony, she poured used kitchen water over some flowers but left others to wilt.

"There's no turning back from extreme weather," she said. "Developing good habits for saving water is probably just a rehearsal for frequent droughts of the future."

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