Saturday, December 4, 2021

Drought threatens Taiwan’s chip industry, critical for world computers

The government is rationing water and has tried cloud seeding and rain worshipping ceremonies.

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Taiwan is experiencing its worst drought in 56 years. Many of its reservoirs are at less than 20% capacity, with water levels at some falling below 10%.

The island is usually one of the rainiest places in the world. Typhoons are common in summer and autumn, and it also gets monsoons.

It rains so often here that umbrellas are placed at subway stations and businesses for anyone to borrow.

But last year no typhoons hit the island and there has been precious little rain.

This is bad news for Taiwan’s thirsty US$100 billion semiconductor industry, reports the BBC.

One of the industry’s two primary reservoirs is at its lowest ever – only 7% full.

If this and other reservoirs on the island dry up, it will hit the global electronics sector, because so many of the world’s computer chips are made by Taiwanese companies.

They’re key to objects ranging from modern cars to smartphones, and the pandemic has left supply short. The US is now worried about over-reliance on chips made overseas, including in Taiwan.

The sector is a big contributor to Taiwan’s economy, but it requires a lot of water to process the wafers critical to tech devices.

Chipmakers are planning for the worst. One of the largest, TSMC says it now recycles more than 86% of the water it uses.

Struggling to ensure supplies for the industry, the government stopped irrigating more than 74,000 hectares of farmland last year.

It has also turned off the tap for residents and businesses in three cities for two days a week.

In dry areas, high-volume industrial users including semiconductor manufacturers have been asked to reduce water usage by 13%, and non-industrial users, such as hair salons and car wash businesses, by 20%.

Farmers have been the hardest hit. Many rice farmers have been forced to leave their fields fallow.

One said: “We also think about our country’s economy, but they shouldn’t completely stop providing water. You can give us water for two days a week or one day and farmers will find a way. But now they’ve completely cut our water, farmers can’t find a way out. You’re focusing entirely on semiconductors.”

Experts say Taiwan should have seen the warning signs coming.

“Taiwan has been suffering from a significant decrease in the number of rainy days each year since the 1960s,” says Hsu Huang-hsiung, a climate change expert.

In parts of the island, the number of rainy days each year has fallen by about 80.

“Climate change has never been a centre of discussion in our government or society. Although everybody talks about being afraid of climate change, it tends to be lip service. They express care, but don’t take any action,” Hsu says.

Now desperate for rain, the government has tried cloud seeding and rain worshipping ceremonies at which they prayed for help from Mazu, a sea goddess in Taoist and Buddhist traditions.

Until that works, people with no tap water fill up their buckets twice a week in advance, or fetch water from tanks set up on the street on the days the taps are closed.

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