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.


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