Friday, December 24, 2010

The Ponds of Taoyuan

Ponds of the Taoyuan Tableland
The Taoyuan Tableland and its ponds. The international airport is in the upper right corner.

I was hunting around for a place to bike tomorrow, looking for an old Qing dynasty canal in our fair city of Taichung, when I stumbled across this page on "Taiwan's Beautiful Canals and Ditches." Put off by its odious oily oozing Chinese-centrism, I left a note there to remind them that the aborigines had constructed waterworks long before the Han conquistadors and settlers showed up. However, as I did so, my roving eye fixed on something on that page I had seen dozens of times, but had never noticed before: the ponds of Taoyuan.

Most people reading this have flown in and out of Taoyuan international and looked down to see the sparkling faery landscape of ponds that spill across the Taoyuan tableland. The page on old waterworks in Taiwan describes what you are seeing:

Those shining mirrors are the county's agricultural irrigation ponds. The Longtan pond was the first, built in 1748. The region's irrigation system has developed gradually, pond-by-pond, over the past 261 years. Each pond stands as a historical record of how local families brought the land under cultivation, and at one time, there were more than 10,000 such ponds in Taoyuan. However, urban expansion has led to the destruction of many of these ponds -- one recent survey shows that there are only 693 left -- with each one filled with dirt marking the end of the history of certain families, as well as the loss of habitat for water birds.

According to the survey, each pond can provide territory for an average of seven water birds. With an estimated 7,000 hectares of pond lost over the years, this represents the loss of habitat for nearly 50,000 birds.

The article goes on to say that the ponds are particularly vulnerable to destruction by Taiwan's developmentalist sociopathology. Irrigation regulations require that a given pond have only one owner. Hence, negotiations for ponds are easy since construction companies do not have to deal with more than one owner.

Another web page describes how they were constructed:
The ponds were usually built in the lower areas. Builders dig both the red soil and pebble layers, then encircle the area with banks. The red soil is highly adhesive. When mixed with pebbles and pressed tightly, a waterproof bank can be made. Banks encircle the ponds in the low areas. Before the Shih-men Reservoir was constructed, ponds were the major source of irrigation water.

According to statistics, there were as many as ten thousand ponds on the Taoyuan plain before the great drought in 1913. At that time, Taoyuan Hsien was known as the "thousand lakes hsien". All ponds were connected; and thus an irrigation system was created.
The ponds were also supplanted by other waterwork construction in the twentieth century. After the Taoyuan Main canal was completed during the Japanese period and the Shihmen Reservoir came online a couple of decades later under the KMT, the new infrastructure became major sources of irrigation water for the area. The ponds were also integrated into central government systems during the twentieth century. Nevertheless, a little over 50% of the area's irrigation water continued to come from the pond and weir system. The Taoyuan Irrigation Association mandates that the ponds must be 80% full at all times, as a backup irrigation system in case of drought.

The ponds made complex agriculture possible in the relatively waterless Taoyuan Tableland, supporting not only rice cultivation, but also domestic waterfowl, fish, and valuable water plants. They also provided home to wild birds and rare plants:
A big mound of earth sits next to a factory in Three Lakes Village, brought in to fill in nearby ponds. Yen points to the mound and comments, "There used to be ponds here about two meters deep." Of the three or four ponds nearby, one has been filled in, one has been converted for recreational fishing, and one has been drained. A few aquatic plants can still be found in the boggy area left behind after the one pond was drained. "There used to be frogsmouth all over the place," laments Yen, "but even that is disappearing fast." Insectivorous sundew plants once grew in the rice paddies right next to the factory, but are no longer to be found (here).
Sadly, the ponds are rapidly disappearing, in many areas remembered only by placenames like Dragonlake, Three Lakes Village, or Big Lake. The focus on saving wetlands in Taiwan has primarily been on areas next to rivers or the ocean, the ponds of Taoyuan, of deep argicultural, environmental, and cultural interest, have somehow slipped off the radar. So next time you fly out of Taoyuan Airport, look down. There'll be fewer ponds when you get back.
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Anonymous said...

Very informative. Thanks for that.

Robert Scott Kelly said...

Jesus, Michael, my family is going to kill me now as I spend Christmas day reading about ponds. LOL.

Michael Turton said...

Thanks guys! I really enjoyed putting together the post....

Anonymous said...

These ponds appear in a Council of Cultural Affairs booklet on Taiwan's potential World Heritage Sites.

Peter Czjukowski said...

thanks for the post!