Watching out for our water supply!

For those who have not made the journey, climbing Hong Kong Island’s mountains is an enlightening experience. Once you have struggled up the steep slopes and emerged from the trees you see skyscrapers racing as it were to the top of the mountains and endless clusters of high rises housing a population of 7million. If you look the other way you see forests, and reservoirs not large enough for a big city state. The enormity of providing basic needs – water in particular – are ever present. The ordinary resident can hardly forget the challenge.

Now I hear from back in the UK – though I don’t generally read the Mail – I see even it reports: “The UK gets drought warning”, and “the period from February until now has been the second driest in England and Wales since 1921”. The Guardian reports on California now in the 4th year of what seems to be the worst drought this millennium. Taiwan is also suffering drought, and rationing is underway – no water supply for two days a week in Taipei.


However it is another story a couple of weeks back, “In prison for collecting rainwater”, about the Oregon farmer, that trended on Facebook. In effect man charged for that inalienable human right to the rain.  Is big government going one step too far as the Oregon report suggests or is it not doing enough to manage our water supply? Should we in fact criticise our politicians for allowing water prices to fall – or if you’re the USA allowing you to have your swimming pools and green lawns in the desert or in Taiwan fill huge tubs of water for a hotspring bath? Perhaps the state does need to take a tough line to protect our water supplies for the common good?

Let’s begin with Taiwan as I’m out East and looking for signs of the bold green dragon saving life, the earth etc. Drought in mountainous, lush, sub-tropical Taiwan with 2.6x the global average rainfall! Drought doesn’t seem likely.

But, yes there is a problem. Taiwan has had it’s lowest rainfall in 70 years. The vast Ximen dam close to Taipei has all but dried up, falling to 24.5% capacity. Some parts of Taipei will be rationed to having water just 5 days a week.

Water prices are very low and the Taiwanese use huge amounts of water – 350litres a day for ordinary households compared with 150litres in the US and Europe. Farmers soak up vast amounts of water for their rice and the aquaculture industry also led to boreholes being sunk and groundwater used up. Industry happily pollutes it and pumps it into the sea. Hotels use large quantities of water. There is little incentive for investment in water recycling plants and dams are silting up.

This is no doubt in part political. It’s the old issue of thinking its political suicide to put up taxes or indeed utility prices. Perhaps also complacency and a belief that technology will provide the answers. My husband says its not a problem – all that needs to be built is desalination plants! But the costs are high – a 2013 study by the Californian government put the costs as twice that of building reservoirs and four times the cost of saving water through conservation. That’s leaving aside the carbon cost of an energy intensive process. So it doesn’t look as if will allow the citizens of Taipei water in their taps every day of the week or stop the high speed train line from sinking.

Perhaps its also a sign of things to come with a less predictable climate. After a drier period from the 1960s -1990s, Taiwan suffered from floods and high rainfall in the first decade of this century. Now it faces drought. None of this seems a surprise when I turn to UNFCC papers which say: “having the natural environment of a subtropical island, Taiwan is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The rate of temperature rise in Taiwan reached as high as 1.43°C (1998) in the last century, almost twice the global average (about 0.6°C) …”

So if it’s wastefulness and low prices combined with climate change in Taiwan, what is it in California? The US Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2010 that the state consumes more than 2mill acre feet of water over and above the recharge of water supplies. Once again underlying this we seem to have that lethal combination of climate change and low water prices.

We are forewarned of the impacts of climate change by experts like Stanford University academic, Professor Noah Diffenbaugh. He led a study examining the role of warm temperatures in California’s drought. He explains, “California is in a climate regime where are much more likely to get this kind of drought event again because of the role of temperature rise”(the Guardian, April 2015). Recently Governor Davis announced the need to conserve water, whilst standing on a grassy field which would ordinarily in April still be covered by ice! How are California’s water supplies to be sustained over a hot summer?

On water prices, research by campaign group, Circle of Blue, shows that prices in California remain relatively low. They attribute this to federal subsidies, through extensive construction of dams never charged to the consumer. The prices paid by consumers simply don’t reflect cost.

California has long had measures to encourage water conservation, and is currently seeking to put in place pricing policies to encourage conservation. The City of San Juan Capistrano, Orange County sought to put in place a tiered charging system, so that greater use leads to higher prices. However in a blow to conservation pricing, this was challenged by residents and has been declared unconstitutional by the courts, possibly a huge setback to managing water supplies across the country. The decision will no doubt be appealed.

In this age of an unpredictable climate but also the high demands of industry, agriculture and an affluent population, its clear that bold action is needed. Pricing policies, not always popular with the consumer are vital, as well as regulating abstraction. Good to see California take the lead on pricing, but worrying to see the courts strike this down.

I hope people will not forget the challenge – even if they do not have the Hong Kong view to remind them – and that concerns about this sort of court decision will trend on Facebook, not that of Oregon man diverting rainwater from a city’s water supplies, a luxury sadly perhaps we no longer have.

Beginning as a blogger

Whilst all of the UK is in the throes of a general election, we are out here in the Far East/Asia Pacific missing the excitement.

I thought I’d try and drip feed some snippets of interesting thoughts on what is going on out here, as a minor distraction.

Though we live in Hong Kong, I’m beginning with Taiwan where we spent a week. I’d like to know if my perceptions weren’t quite right.  So please feel free to comment.

Hong Kong despite its small size is monumental and overwhelming, as those who have been here will know! So it will take some time to digest before I can tell you about our story out here.

Taiwan’s public transport – a model for all?

Like me when you hear Taiwan, you probably think HTC, semi-conductors, and traffic and air pollution rivalling China’s smoggy cities. Not mountains, sub-tropical rainforest, all easily accessible by cheap fast public transport, and relatively clean air and blue skies!

On the surface it looks as if this country is doing a pretty good job of enabling people to commute and travel whilst protecting the environment. The Green Dragon appears to live on.

We travel on a quickly pre-booked fast train from Taoyuoshan, a new city, near the airport to Taipei Main Station about 40km away. The train is on time and we even get a seat reservation 15mins in advance. We are in the centre of Tapei in about 20mins for under £4. For a Mumbai commuter, even a Londoner, this is to die for. The train doesn’t however go to airport – to be contrasted with projects in India like the Bangalore high speed line that will begin with an airport link. Primacy isn’t given to the most polluting means of travel.

The city of Taipei itself has a self-financing state of the art mass rapid transport system connecting a huge part of northern Taiwan called New Taipei, used by 2.1mill people a day. A recent study conducted by researchers at UC Merced found that it led to significant reductions in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide levels, rather than just increasing commuter trips.

None of this happened quickly or painlessly. The original proposal came from the Minister of Transportation and Communications Sun Yun-suan in 1968. Works began in 1986 leading initially to the Dark Age of Taipei Traffic. The original budget was US$ 13.4bn but as usual there were costs over-runs. The system opened in part in 1996, and was completed by 2013.

Other than those hiccups Taipei MRT is a success, the no 1 in the world in fact. It has 100% disability access. It is clean, has some good views, and cable cars thrown in too. It pays for itself through the large numbers using the system.

We have a great time of it happily travelling over a holiday weekend from the centre of Taipei, to the end of the line to Wulai up in the mountains in around an hour (and into the hot springs not long after). In terms of the system as a whole, the buses too are good. We travel by bus from Taipei Main Station into Yanmingshan National Park – mountains, clouds, hot springs and hikes in 45mins. There are bikes to hire in Taipei and one can cycle around wide tree-lined boulevards, though I do wonder as we walk in the heat whether Hausmann style boulevards were ever the right thing for the East.

Enough of the commercial for the tourism department – its not all plain sailing! The southern city of Kaoshiung has also built a mass transport system but in this case it’s under-used. Residents seem to prefer scooters and cars. There is still plenty of parking and petrol is cheap – that may explain it. More generally, there remain large numbers of private cars in Taiwan and public transport use is not nearly as high as in neighbouring Hong Kong.

So its not that straightforward – all the chips must be in place to have a self-financing metro. But the Taiwanese have made this largely a success and been bold in taking the lead on mass transport systems. They seem to have designed systems for the people and not just for the car owners and aspiring car owners. Perhaps the transport system reflects the higher level of equality in Taiwan than in some other parts of the world.

Can we get a delegation of Taiwanese transport planners to advise on Nairobi, Goa, and perhaps even the north west of England!


With a country of 23.4mill people on a land area of 36,000km2 you’d be forgiven for thinking the landscape has long been taken over by urban sprawl, congested highways and factories. But in fact the country remains a pretty pristine mix of the urban and the wild.
It is highly urbanised and with a relatively high standard of living, average income $38,200 a year, ranked 29th in the world for its GDP, about 4 countries richer than the UK.
According to the CIA, Taiwan’s ration of top 20% to bottom 20% is 6.1 much more equal than the UK on 13.6, India on 8.6 and Kenya on 18.6.