HSINCHU, Taiwan – Chuang Cheng-deng’s humble rice farm is a cornerstone from the nerve center of Taiwan’s computer chip industry, where their products account for a large share of the iPhone. and other devices around the world.
This year, Mr. Chuang is paying the price for the high-tech economic importance of neighboring countries. Suffering from drought and scrambling to save water for homes and factories, Taiwan has stopped irrigation on tens of thousands of acres of farmland.
Authorities are compensating growers for lost income. But Mr. Chuang, 55, worries that a hindered harvest will cause customers to look for other suppliers, which could mean declining incomes for years.
“The government is using money to silence farmers,” he said as he surveyed his arid fields.
Officials are calling the drought Taiwan’s worst in more than half a century. And it is posing enormous challenges related to sustaining the island’s semiconductor industry, which is increasingly becoming an indispensable node in the global supply chain for smartphones, automobiles, and other key items of modern life.
Chip makers use a lot of water to clean the factory and their wafers, thin slices of silicon that form the basis of the chip. And with worldwide semiconductor supplies strained due to rising electronics demand, the added uncertainty over Taiwan’s water supply is unlikely to alleviate concerns about world dependence. technology entered the island and specifically into a chip maker: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company.
More than 90% of the world’s most advanced chip manufacturing capacity is in Taiwan and is run by TSMC, the company that makes chips for Apple, Intel and other big names. Last week, the company said it would invest $ 100 billion over the next three years to increase capacity, which will likely further strengthen its command presence in the market.
TSMC said the drought has not affected their production so far. But with Taiwan’s rainfall becoming more and more unpredictable even as the country’s tech industry develops, the island is going through ever greater lengths to keep the water flowing.
In recent months, the government has been sending planes and chemicals burning to create clouds over reservoirs. It built a seawater desalination plant in Hsinchu, where TSMC is headquartered, and a pipeline connecting the city to the more rainy north. It has ordered industries to cut down on use. In some places, it reduced the water pressure and started shutting off supplies for two days a week. Several companies, including TSMC, have been transporting water trucks from other regions.
But the most far-reaching measure is to stop irrigation, affecting 183,000 acres of agricultural land, about one-fifth of Taiwan’s irrigated land.
“TSMC and those semiconductors, they don’t feel it at all,” said Tian Shou-shi, 63, a rice grower in Hsinchu. “We farmers just want to be able to earn an honest living.”
In an interview, the deputy director of the Taiwan Water Resources Agency, Wang Yi-Feng, defended government policies, said that the drought meant crops would be bad even with irrigation water. . Redirecting scarce water to farms instead of factories and houses would be “loss,” he said.
When asked about farmers’ water problems, TSMC spokesperson Nina Kao said efficient water use was “very important to each industry and company” and said TSMC was involved. into a project to increase irrigation efficiency.
The fact that Taiwan, one of the driest places in the world, should lack water is a paradox in the face of tragedy.
Most of the water is used by summer storms. However, the storms also washed soil from Taiwan’s mountainous terrain into its reservoirs. This has gradually reduced the amount of water the reservoirs can store.
The rains also vary widely from year to year. No storms made landfall during the rainy season last year, the first since 1964.
The last time Taiwan stopped large-scale irrigation for water conservation in 2015 and before that was in 2004.
You Jiing-yun, professor of civil engineering at National Taiwan University, said: “If in two or three years similar conditions emerge, then we could say, ‘Ah, Taiwan has certainly entered an era of severe water shortages. “Right now, please wait and see.”
In 2019, TSMC’s facilities in Hsinchu consume 63,000 tons of water per day, according to the company, or more than 10% of the supply from two local reservoirs, Baoshan and Baoshan Second Reservoir. TSMC said it recycled more than 86% of the water from its manufacturing processes that year and saved more than 3.6 million tons from the previous year by increasing recycling and adopting other new measures. . But that is still small compared with the 63 million tons consumed in 2019 at facilities in Taiwan.
Mr. Chuang’s business partner on his farm in Hsinchu, Kuo Yu-ling, doesn’t like to sabotage the chip industry.
Ms. Kuo, 32, said of the city’s main industrial park: “If the Hsinchu Science Park is not as developed as it is today, we will not be able to do business. TSMC engineers are key customers for their rice, she said.
But it’s also wrong, Ms. Kuo said, when accusing farmers of stealing water resources while making little economic contributions.
“Can’t we justly and accurately calculate water use by farms and industry that use water and don’t discriminate against agriculture all the time?” she speaks.
Wang Hsiao-wen, professor of hydraulic engineering at National Cheng Kung University, said the “biggest problem” behind Taiwan’s water disaster is that the government keeps water taxes too low. This encourages waste.
Households in Taiwan use about 75 gallons of water per person per day, government figures show. Most Western Europeans use less than that, while Americans use more, according to World Bank data.
“Adjusting water prices has a major effect on more vulnerable groups in society, so when making adjustments, we are extremely cautious,” said Mr. Wang of the Water Resources Agency. Taiwan’s prime minister said last month that the government would consider imposing additional fees on 1,800 factories that use multiple countries.
Lee Hong-yuan, a hydraulic engineering professor formerly Taiwan’s Interior Minister, also blamed a bureaucracy that made it difficult to build new and modern wastewater recycling plants. pipeline network chemistry.
“Other small countries are incredibly flexible,” said Lee, but “we have the logic of a big country”. He believes this is because the Taiwan government was created decades ago, after the Chinese civil war, with the goal of dominating all of China. Since then, that ambition has lost that ambition, but not the bureaucracy.
The southwestern part of Taiwan is both the center of agriculture and the emerging industrial hub. TSMC’s most advanced chip manufacturing facilities are located in the south of Tainan City.
The nearby Tsengwen reservoir has been narrowed to swamp streams in some parts. Along a beautiful strip known as Lovers Park, the reservoir’s floor became a vast moon landscape. According to government data, the amount of water is about 11.6% of the capacity.
In agricultural towns near Tainan, many growers say they are content with living on government money, at least for now. They clear the weeds from their abandoned fields. They drink tea with friends and ride long-distance bicycles.
But they are also thinking about their future. The Taiwanese public seems to have decided that rice farming is less important, for both the island and the world, than for semiconductors. The heavens – or the larger economic forces, at least – seem to be telling the farmers that it’s time to look for another job.
“Fertilizers are getting more and more expensive. Hsieh Tsai-shan, 74, a rice farmer, said. “Being a farmer is really the worst thing.”
Peaceful farmland surrounds the village of Jingliao, which has become a popular tourist destination after appearing in a documentary about the changing lives of farmers.
There is only one cow left in town. It spends all day pulling tourists, not plowing.
“Around here, 70 people are considered 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 industries and relied on agriculture, we would all have starved to death,” Yang said.