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Taiwan makes tough decisions as it faces its worst drought in nearly a century

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Taiwan is facing a serious drought, maybe its worst in almost a century. This drought has depleted reservoirs, cut off farmers from water sources and limited some of the world's most advanced semiconductor factories. Factories use water. NPR's Emily Feng reports on the choices people now face.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: This is the third year in a row that rice farmers in southern Taiwan have not been allowed to plant their crops. Instead, the government is paying them subsidies not to grow rice this season. The rice uses scarce water that semiconductor factories nearby need.

ZHANG MEIXUE: (Through interpreter) When there is no rain, things grow at the wrong time.

FENG: That's Zhang Meixue. She's head of one of the local farmers associations here in southern Taiwan, once one of the island's prime rice growing areas. Eighty-five percent of the county's population relies on agriculture. That's nearly all on pause now.

ZHANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

FENG: She shows us one of her rice paddies. It used to hold enough water to raise ducks. Now it's nothing but cracked earth and a few crispy flowers.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) The ducks loved water, but now we can't raise them or grow rice. I tried to grow flowers to bring in some tourists, but nothing grows well here.

FENG: In southern Taiwan, its storied agricultural way of life exists side by side with the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing bases in the world. And now with the drought, both are competing for water.

YANG KUANWEI: (Through interpreter) We barely have enough water, and you're diverting even more for others to use.

FENG: This is Yang Kuanwei, a tomato farmer in southern Tainan County, where Taiwan chip giant TSMC is building its newest chip factory. It's also close to the Zengwen reservoir, one of Taiwan's largest. An astonishingly dry three years and an absence of Taiwan's usual typhoons means the reservoir is at a scary low, filled to just 11% of its capacity. Taiwan's other reservoirs are just 20 or 30% filled because spring typhoons have not come, and that's thrown off natural cycles.

YANG: (Through interpreter) Bugs spread disease. And normally, a typhoon would reduce the numbers. But without typhoons, we rely on pesticides, which kill the bees.

FENG: The drought is hard on everyone. Many of Taiwan's cities are limiting residential water use at night, and the hardest hit are even cutting it off for two days a week. But Yang believes, faced with tough choices, Taiwan should prioritize its farmers more and not just its semiconductor factories, as a form of national security.

YANG: (Through interpreter) Our country needs to rely on its own food production. It's a form of security. We can't import everything we eat.

FENG: Taiwan's semiconductor plants build the tiny computing chips that go into our iPhones and fighter jets and cars. Those same factories need huge amounts of water and power to etch and deposit tiny bits of metals and chemicals on silicon wafers. To limit its water use, TSMC set up its own water recycling plant in 2021, another drought year. And it and many of Taiwan's biggest chip factories are cutting down water use by 10 to 15% this year - unfortunately, at a time when global demand for chips is growing.

GENE YOU: We need to be more, I mean, smart.

FENG: That's Gene You, a civil engineering professor and water management specialist at National Taiwan University. He explains Taiwan has an unlucky combination of factors - heavy seasonal rains, but very little storage because of the island's mountainous and sediment-heavy topography. And now You says Taiwan is being too accommodating to chip factories.

YOU: From my observation, the policy is just like, you need water, I give you because the economic need you, or something like that. So I don't think it's a good way.

FENG: Not a good way because even though Taiwan's economy needs chip factories, it also can't afford to give them all the water they ask for. Just how long water rationing lasts this year depends on whether April and May bring the so-called plum rains - seasonal storms that come during the plum harvest. Lin Qingshu, a third-generation plum farmer, doesn't think they'll come. We survey what's left of the Zengwen reservoir together. A thick band of white rings the reservoir, parched dry land left as the water recedes.

LIN QINGSHU: (Through interpreter) Our plums this year will be stunt. They bloomed plentifully, but there is no water. Coming up myself and seeing the reservoir, I see the situation is really severe. It hurts my heart.

FENG: It sprinkled a few days ago, and Lin says she was so hopeful she nearly cried.

LIN: (Through interpreter) Us farmers say we look at the sky for sustenance.

FENG: Meaning their livelihoods depend on good weather and, in this case, a good rain.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Tainan, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.