2015年4月15日 星期三

From California to Taipei – How Water Shortage Becomes the New Normal

Source:Oregon Department of Agriculture via Flickr


Angela Yeh, Climate and Energy Project Officer at Delta Electronics Foundation

Both the state of California and several cities in Taiwan have issued water rationing in the last few weeks. A quick google search will tell you that these two places are not alone in the fight against droughts – in fact, some parts of Africa and South America are facing the dire water shortage problem as it threatens the people’s basic livelihoods. In São Paulo for example, the economic heart of Brazil, the word ‘water refugee’ has emerged to describe population relocation as a result of droughts.

Although a certain degree of drought can be attributed to meteorological cycles, the persistence, severity and inconsistencies of droughts across the globe, is without a doubt, a product of anthropogenic climate change. Nevertheless, there are country-specific problems that have led to not only the inevitability of drought, but the exacerbation of it.

In the case of the west coast of the United States, the state of California relies on snowpacks as their primary source of surface water such as streams and lakes. However, this year marks the fourth consecutive year that California’s snowpack is below normal. When surface water falls short, groundwater is drilled to make up for the difference. Last week for the first time in history, Governor Jerry Brown of California issued to reduce water use by 25% - the biggest skepticism with this executive order is that, though the agricultural sector consumes the majority of water, it remains the only industry that is exempt from the latest rationing.
Snow in the interior of Nevada on March 27, 2010   Source:  The Earth Observatory/NASA 



Snow in the interior of Nevada on March 29, 2015   Source:  The Earth Observatory/NASA 
Taiwan, on the other hand, enjoys 2.6 times more rainfall than the world’s average, but is classified by the United Nations as an area with ‘scarce water resources’. The challenge with Taiwan’s water situation can be generalized into three main reasons: the disproportionate amount of rainfall across seasons (plenty of rain during typhoon seasons but little to no rain between November and May); the topography of the island (steep slopes and short rivers) that makes conserving rainwater difficult; and heavy sedimentation (due to illicit economic activities and landslides) in reservoirs that limits water storage capacities. A leaky delivery system as a result of outdated pipelines does not help with the water problem, either. In fact, the Ministry of Economic Affairs announced that Taiwan is seeing the lowest rainfall last fall and winter since 1947, warning the general public of the urgency in such water crisis. Similar to California, Taiwan started its water rationing in several northern cities in Taiwan, leaving only the capital, Taipei, unaffected. One of the major reservoirs reported a capacity of 25%, the lowest since it was operationalized in the 60s.



When faced with extreme resource scarcity problems, especially as they pertain to one of the most essential elements that sustain life – we ask ourselves why and how we brought this to humanity in the first place? And more importantly, is there a way out of the downward spiral? Indeed, national policies could be refined so that reservoirs can operate more efficiently; water pipelines could be repaired to reduce leakages. Yes, water prices should go up to more accurately reflect the real cost of utilizing water as a natural resource. And yes, people’s behaviors need to change, and water conservation should be rooted in their daily activities. These are some of the most critical and logical steps to tackle the global water crisis, one step at a time. However, we cannot but start addressing the elephant in the room – that is, the fundamental driver that led to extreme weather events, where drier places are subject to severe droughts, and wetter places are exposed to intense floods – namely, anthropogenic climate change.

Many have come to the conclusion that climate change is not a technological problem, nor is it an economic problem – however, it can be viewed as a behavioral problem. Why is that? The solutions below can all be traced back to behaviors – whether it is government behavior, the behavior of the free market, the educational system, or the behavior of any and every individual – the very paradigm we created is the problem to our water problem. And here is how we can change that.

Source:UN Photo/Albert González Farran via Flickr
From a policy perspective, national governments and international multilateral oil and gas associations should advocate against the subsidy on the fossil fuel industry. Many countries have already submitted their INDCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions) in which they commit to very ambitious energy mix with reduced fossil fuels. Countries like China and India should take the lead in ending dirty fuel subsidies, especially when their primary energy supply comes mainly from coal. From a market and incentive viewpoint, carbon tax should obviously still be on the table, but perhaps a ‘water tax’ could be introduced, where water usage that exceeded a certain threshold will be subject to government taxation. That tax dollar can go to renovating old water pipelines or reservoir cleaning.

On a more personal level, we can start water conservation by pledging to take 5 minute showers, limit car washes, or removing grass lawns and replace them with desert plants. To take this to another level: one could retrofit laundry machines so that the used water can be reused to water drought-resistant plants, for example. Finally, let us be reminded that it does not seem all too impossible now to contemplate on the idea that wars this century will not be fought over oil, but over water. If we act now, we can still reverse that reality.

Further Reading
California's Drought Page 
US Drought Monitor 

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