The island is going to great lengths to keep water flowing to its all-important semiconductor industry, including shutting off irrigation to legions of rice growers.
HSINCHU, Taiwan — Chuang Cheng-deng’s modest rice farm is a stone’s throw from the nerve center of Taiwan’s computer chip industry, whose products power a huge share of the world’s iPhones and other gadgets.
This year, Mr. Chuang is paying the price for his high-tech neighbors’ economic importance. Gripped by drought and scrambling to save water for homes and factories, Taiwan has shut off irrigation across tens of thousands of acres of farmland.
The authorities are compensating growers for the lost income. But Mr. Chuang, 55, worries that the thwarted harvest will drive customers to seek out other suppliers, which could mean years of depressed earnings.
“The government is using money to seal farmers’ mouths shut,” he said, surveying his parched brown fields.
Officials are calling the drought Taiwan’s worst in more than half a century. And it is exposing the enormous challenges involved in hosting the island’s semiconductor industry, which is an increasingly indispensable node in the global supply chains for smartphones, cars and other keystones of modern life.
TSMC says the drought has not affected its production so far. But with Taiwan’s rainfall becoming no more predictable even as its tech industry grows, the island is having to go to greater and greater lengths to keep the water flowing.
“TSMC and those semiconductor guys, they don’t feel any of this at all,” said Tian Shou-shi, 63, a rice grower in Hsinchu. “We farmers just want to be able to make an honest living.”
In an interview, the deputy director of Taiwan’s Water Resources Agency, Wang Yi-feng, defended the government’s policies, saying the dry spell meant that harvests would be bad even with access to irrigation. Diverting scarce water to farms instead of factories and homes would be “lose-lose,” he said.
That Taiwan, one of the developed world’s rainiest places, should lack for water is a paradox verging on tragedy.
Much of the water used by residents is deposited by the summer typhoons. But the storms also send soil cascading from Taiwan’s mountainous terrain into its reservoirs. This has gradually reduced the amount of water that reservoirs can hold.
The rains are also highly variable year to year. Not a single typhoon made landfall during last year’s rainy season, the first time that had happened since 1964.
“If in another two or three years, the same conditions reappear, then we can say, ‘Ah, Taiwan has definitely entered an era of major water shortages,’” said You Jiing-yun, a civil engineering professor at National Taiwan University. “Right now, it’s wait and see.”
Mr. Chuang’s business partner on his farm in Hsinchu, Kuo Yu-ling, does not like demonizing the chip industry.
“If Hsinchu Science Park weren’t developed like it is today, we wouldn’t be in business, either,” said Ms. Kuo, 32, referring to the city’s main industrial zone. TSMC engineers are important customers for their rice, she said.
But it is also wrong, Ms. Kuo said, to accuse farmers of guzzling water while contributing little economically.
“Can’t we take a fair and accurate accounting of how much water farms use and how much water industry uses and not stigmatize agriculture all the time?” she said.
The “biggest problem” behind Taiwan’s water woes is that the government keeps water tariffs too low, said Wang Hsiao-wen, a professor of hydraulic engineering at National Cheng Kung University. This encourages waste.
Lee Hong-yuan, a hydraulic engineering professor who previously served as Taiwan’s interior minister, also blames a bureaucratic morass that makes it hard to build new wastewater recycling plants and to modernize the pipeline network.
“Other small countries are all extremely flexible,” Mr. Lee said, but “we have a big country’s operating logic.” He believes this is because Taiwan’s government was set up decades ago, after the Chinese civil war, with the goal of ruling the whole of China. It has since shed that ambition, but not the bureaucracy.
In farming towns near Tainan, many growers said they were content to be living on the government’s dime, at least for now. They clear the weeds from their fallowed fields. They drink tea with friends and go on long bike rides.
But they are also reckoning with their futures. The Taiwanese public appears to have decided that rice farming is less important, both for the island and the world, than semiconductors. The heavens — or larger economic forces, at least — seem to be telling the farmers it is time to find other work.
“Fertilizer is getting more expensive. Pesticide is getting more expensive,” said Hsieh Tsai-shan, 74, a rice grower. “Being a farmer is truly the worst.”
Serene farmland surrounds the village of Jingliao, which became a popular tourist spot after appearing in a documentary about farmers’ changing lives.
There is only one cow left in town. It spends its days pulling visitors, not plowing fields.
“Around here, 70 counts as young,” said Yang Kuei-chuan, 69, a rice farmer.
Both of Mr. Yang’s sons work for industrial companies.
“If Taiwan didn’t have any industry and relied on agriculture, we all might have starved to death by now,” Mr. Yang said.
Source: New York Times