Apprehensive about the water rationing in Taipei? Try living up in a hillside community, where water cuts have been a way of life for weeks already.
By Joshua Samuel Brown
When I first proposed to write a story with a headline like The Lighter Side of the Drought, my editor thought that I had gone mad (probably from thirst or shower deprivation). But I assured him that I was no less sane than usual, and that, as a person who had been particularly affected by this ugly dry spell due to my unusual lifestyle choices, I had found the only way to cope with it is by maintaining a sense of humor. If this passes for madness in some circles, well, so be it.
Some background is in order: First, the drought. It is May 15 as I sit and write this, but owing to the peculiarities of magazine publishing, you won't be reading this until June. If the famous mei yu (plum rains) haven't hit Taiwan by the time this issue is in print, then we, my friends, are collectively up that place known in polite circles as excrement creek (in big trouble) -- and a dry creek it will be.
This lack of rainfall is a horrible thing for Taiwan. In particular, spare a thought for the Hsinchu Science-based Industrial Park. Its semiconductor fabs, without which Taiwan would have the economic prowess of, say, Laos, are dependent upon an ample supply of clean water. When the spigots run dry out there, they may as well turn off the lights, too. This has been depressing no one more than stock investors of late.
Then there's the agricultural sector to consider. While Taiwan isn't as dependent on growing its own food as it once was, there's still a strong sense of being tied to the land that runs through the local spirit. The idea of rice fields lying parched and fallow, fruitless orange trees, and, yes, even a shortage of betel nuts strikes a deeply sad chord inside of the collective soul of Taiwan.
The irony is that Taiwan, particularly up north, is supposed to be a wet place -- too darned wet, most people would say. Guidebooks point this out by saying that Taiwan has two seasons: "Cold and Damp," and "Hot and Wet."
The Cold and Damp season, especially north of Taichung, is traditionally miserable, with a regular chilly drizzle and a damp cold that eats its way into your bones. Yet Lunar New Year, usually a good time to hole up at home with a few bottles of wine and a stack of DVDs, turned out this year to be one of the warmest and driest in recent history. April, a month usually dreaded by most Taipei residents for its Seattle-like dreariness, was more like Tripoli in August. Sure, it was nice to be able to come home with dry clothes, but by the middle of the month, there was something downright eerie about the unnatural abundance of sunshine. It was about that time that everyone realized this good weather would not come without a price, and that a piper would need to be paid sooner or later.
Cost of Living High
That piper came knocking on my door a bit earlier than most. You see, I'm lucky enough to live in a little mountain community called Hua Yuan. South of Taipei city, Hua Yuan is removed from the traffic and bustle of urban life. We're also removed from the Feitsui reservoir, from which much of Taipei city drinks. What we have here is a small community reservoir fed by a stream that runs down the mountain, itself fed by precipitation that occurs way up in the high altitudes.
But this precipitation never came, and while it turned out to be a great winter for postcards, in Hua Yuan that translated into water rationing.
It started out innocuously enough -- in mid April, the water began being shut off from noon until five, and from midnight until six. This is not a big deal for normal folk, who go to work during the day and sleep at night. However, I'm not normal folk. I'm a freelance writer, often working until just before dawn and sleeping until noon. As the wee hours approach, I often find myself needing a shower, especially after doing pushups to combat writer's block.
Still, in the spirit of civic duty (and not having a choice in the matter), I dealt with it, remembering to fill up a bucket for late night wash-ups and to stock up on bottled water. But in late April, the situation turned critical as our little reservoir dipped below the dead storage mark, the level at which they actually have to pump the remaining water out. At that point, without the pressure to carry the water up into my eighth-floor apartment, the water supply stopped entirely. In fact, the only people in the entire building who were getting any water where those with rooftop storage tanks with built-in pumps. While there has been the occasional burst of residual pressure that would allow a weak dribble to flow forth, for the most part my taps have been dry for two weeks.
Thief in the Night
Lack of water does strange things to one's sense of ethics. While I haven't yet gotten to the level of evil desperation of Humphrey Bogart's character in "Treasure of the Sierra Madres," I must confess to being driven to larceny by the drought. I can only wonder whether people in the next building been watching me sneaking around on the roof, pilfering buckets of water from my neighbors' private, pump-driven storage tanks.
Lack of water also does strange things to one's mind. I've found myself opening up defunct taps and staring at them for minutes at a time, and holding down the toilet handle, as if that little bit of extra pressure might do the trick, making a tank that's been dry for weeks magically issue forth with a sweet flushing sound.
But the drought has taught me a few things. If you've never bathed using one bucket of water and a washcloth, you ought to give it a try - you'd be surprised at just how much pure refreshment you can get from a washcloth. Even if the rains begin tomorrow and continue until every reservoir in Taiwan overflows (which is exactly what happened last year in those halcyon days after a typhoon put downtown Taipei under several feet of water), there are some things I'll never take for granted again; little things, like being able to mop my floor, or to wash my hands after cleaning out the kitty litter box.
If anything positive can be said to have come out of what is turning into a bona-fide crisis, it is that, through shared deprivation, I feel more integrated with the greater Taiwan community. Small talk with shopkeepers has changed from the usual "Oh, your Chinese is so good" flattery, to "my building doesn't have any water, either." There's a certain grim camaraderie that transcends the normal barriers that exist between locals and foreigners. This week saw the beginning of citywide water rationing, with the city divided into five zones and the water off in each zone one day out of five. Barring some miracle of nature, it seems likely that this will be increased to one day in three, affecting everything from the smallest restaurant to the biggest hotel. So much for being able to fall back on my US$85-a-month health club membership.
As the nation's reservoirs reach their own dead storage levels, people are finding different ways to deal with the looming probability of an ever-worsening crisis. Bottled water distributors are unable to keep up with demand. Temples across Taiwan are holding ceremonies to beseech the gods for rain, pouring water over cut-out representations of the island in hopes that the gods get the hint. Up in the mountains, aboriginals of various tribes are practicing their ceremonial rain dances. As for myself, well, I'm heading up to the roof to perform a little rain dance of my own. But I'll be bringing up a few buckets and a wrench, just to be safe. The gods, I've been told, help those who help themselves.
--- Joshua Samuel Brown is a writer and raconteur who lives in Taipei