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In Drought-Ridden Taiwan, Residents Adapt To Life With Less Water


California is not alone in facing a serious water shortage. Across the Pacific, Taiwan has been facing one of its worst ever droughts. Millions of people and hundreds of businesses have been coping with severe water rationing. NPR's Rob Ballenger recently visited Taiwan and learned how people have adapted.

ROB BALLENGER, BYLINE: The drought in this island nation began last fall. Taiwan's water resource agency says between October and February the country recorded its lowest rainfall since 1947 when record-keeping began. And perhaps no one was more aware of the crisis than Wang Ku Liang.

WANG KU LIANG: (Through interpreter) Where we're standing now is usually underwater.

BALLENGER: Wang is a government official responsible for the Shihmen Reservoir. It's one of the largest in Taiwan. He and I actually walked into the basin.

LIANG: (Through interpreter) As you can see, the ground is all cracked because of insufficient rain.

BALLENGER: The cracks are so widespread it looks like we're standing on brown, shattered glass. The water level had dropped to only 20 percent of the reservoir's capacity. This became easy to see from up in Wang's office overlooking the reservoir. He says it dried up in spite of government-imposed water restrictions that began back in the winter.

LIANG: (Through interpreter) A lot of the reservoir's water goes to agriculture, so first we partially cut off the irrigation supply for farming. Afterward, there still wasn't enough rain, so we started three phases of public water restrictions. The first is we lowered water pressure at night, but that didn't work out as well as we had hoped, so we went on to the second phase.

BALLENGER: Phase two began in February. It restricted large-scale water use at many industrial plants. And by April when I visited, the drought had become so severe that the government implemented phase three. That meant the public water supply was cut off for two days each week across much of northern Taiwan. Wang says the water rationing meant that most everyone had to change their daily routines.

LIANG: (Through interpreter) I shower instead of taking baths, and I collect the shower water afterward to flush the toilet. When I cook I collect the water from washing vegetables and use that to flush the toilet.

BALLENGER: All kinds of businesses had to adapt, too. Just ask John Lin. He owns a shop in Taoyuan City near the reservoir. It's part of a popular chain that sells bubble tea.

JOHN LIN: (Through interpreter) Simply speaking, we are selling water. Without water, our business won't last.

BALLENGER: Lin saved and stockpiled some water, but he still had to close down one day per week and cancel his tea delivery service. He is worried about how long his store can survive the drought.

LIN: (Through interpreter) We are facing a loss of over 100,000 Taiwan dollars for the month. That's about 30 percent of our total revenue.

BALLENGER: Down the street, a hair salon called Mentor adapted to the water restrictions with better results. A stylist there named Zoe says the salon stockpiled enough water each week to stay open.

ZOE: (Through interpreter) We made plans. We installed two extra water tanks for clients.

BALLENGER: She says the business actually benefits when customers can't turn on their own taps.

ZOE: (Through interpreter) When the water's cut off, people come to salons to have their hair washed because they can't do it at home.

BALLENGER: The salon's ability to absorb the impact of water rationing is reflected on a much larger scale across the country's semiconductor industry. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company uses up to 350,000 tons of water each day. It's needed to wash chemicals off semiconductor wafers, which wind up in smart phones, TVs and computers. Spokesperson Elizabeth Sun says the company was already prepared for drought. Its facility was designed to recycle enough water to meet its massive needs.

ELIZABETH SUN: We are able to repeatedly use the water so the actual consumption of clean tap water is between 90,000 and 100,000 tons per day instead of the 300,000 to 350,000 ton per day.

BALLENGER: Sun says her company's manufacturing went unaffected by this year's water restrictions. Now the rainy season has arrived in Taiwan. Enough rain is falling that the government is scaling back most of its rationing. That means much of Taiwan can begin to return to normal water usage ,but Taiwan's president is asking for a new normal. In the next 15 years, he says he wants people to cut their water use by around 10 percent and in the longer term, by at least 30 percent. Rob Ballenger, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Ballenger