Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Political Ecology of Land Subsidence: A Solar Energy Farm

Farms in Tainan

I found The Political Ecology of Land Subsidence: A Case Study of the Solar Energy-Farming Scheme, Pingtung County, Taiwan by Shew-Jiuan Su, which is Chapter 7 in the book Geomorphology and Society (Eds. Meadows and.Lin, Springer, 2016).

In 2009 typhoon Morakot absolutely wrecked southern Taiwan, flooding low-lying areas and sweeping away infrastructure. The governments both central and local put in place new policies to address some of the water issues, though the basic understanding that the construction-industrial state could wreck Taiwan continues. This article is about a solar energy project in Pingtung...
The solar energy-farming scheme, initiated by the Pingtung County government in 2009 following the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot, is an illuminating case study in this regard. The scheme was established to convert low-lying land used for aquaculture into solar energy plants. The plan was not only expected to provide economic opportunities for the locals but also to prevent land subsidence.

Some interesting tidbits...
Both political economy and political ecology are crucial for understanding water pumping and
land subsidence. For example, in the late 1960s when the capital city of Taipei encountered land subsidence, investigations pointed to over-extraction of groundwater as the major cause. Discouraging water pumping and providing piped water thus became a priority during the 1970s–1980s. Only after 1987, when the Fei-tsui Dam was established to serve the Taipei metropolis, was groundwater pumping greatly reduced. The success in preventing Taipei land subsidence was partly due to abundant precipitation and the fact that regional geology and geomorphology facilitate the efficient infiltration of meteoric water into rock fissures.
At present Changhua (southwest coast), Yunlin (coast) and Pingtung (Linbian and Jiadong townships) are areas of Taiwan with severe land subsidence, though it affects much of the coastal plain. Along the south coast water withdrawn for aquaculture is a major cause of land subsidence, as southern Taiwan exports water in the form of fish to the rest of Taiwan, Japan, and elsewhere. The author offers some historical background on water rights...
Prior to the modern era of Taiwan, the Japanese colonial government exploited the country for its agricultural produce, in particular rice and sugar cane. Access to water at this time was strictly controlled by a highly organized and efficient bureaucracy (Tu 1993; Higashi 1944). The Society of Water Utility for Agricultural Fields, as it was then known, was the principal authority in this respect. Following the establishment of the republic in 1949, the bureaucratic system was retained, although the responsible authority was renamed as the Department of Irrigation and Engineering. The Department assumed all the water rights established by the colonial government and, because agriculture was the most important economic activity, the Department was very powerful and even influenced election outcomes. Even today, provision of water rights in most rural areas are controlled by this authority (Lin 1998).
The article points out that Taiwan's water policies have been driven by the Developmentalist State mentality. Although water rights were ostensibly about supporting agriculture, pumping became common for industrial uses and industry has had top priority for water in Taiwan. The result?
Nevertheless, when land subsidence was diagnosed as a consequence of groundwater pumping in the 1970s, it was politically conceptualized to be the result of pumping by agriculture and individual households. The misconception that agriculture is responsible for the heavy utilization of valuable water remains apparent today.
The state encouraged aquaculture and developed industrial districts in coastal regions, especially with the emergence of deep water wells that are draining freshwater aquifers at alarming rates. The footnotes contain gems:
Electricity is required to enable groundwater to be pumped from these individual wells. Thus the well owners have to apply for a utility permit and the installation needs to be done by the utility company on site. However, the utility company has no cause to investigate what the electricity is used for and whether or not the applicant has the right to extract groundwater. So-called “illegal pumping” has thus becomes prevalent, while well owners claim they are acting within the law because they pay the electricity bills.

Findings have indicated that primary and middle schools along the high-speed rail track may be held partially responsible for land subsidence. This points to the Ministry of Education’s olicy that encourages schools to obtain water via wells, rather than tap water, in order to become ‘green campuses’. Unfortunately most schools dug deep wells that inadvertantly contributed to the problem of land subsidence.
Why did the aquaculture industry become so dominant in Pingtung?
As a result of the high water table, abundant underground water and artesian wells, the percentage of tap water provision has always been relatively low in Pingtung County. Less than 50% of households in Pingtung are connected to a direct tap water supply provided by the utility company (Table 7.1). This again points to the lack of properly implemented water rights here, since the national average is 92 %. The low rate of water provision in Pingtung County has historical, economic, political and even ecological roots. First of all, the once state-owned utility company neglected to provide the necessary pipe infrastructure for Pingtung and so the county people developed their own water pumping system. Even to this day, the elected county government would debate whether direct water provision should be regarded as a priority and much of the population prefers to use spring water or groundwater that they consider to be of better quality than purified tap water.
The article covers the issues of the solar farm, but the project is still in its experimental state and the results are not in yet. Nevertheless, it does give a useful view of Why Things Are The Way They Are.
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Anonymous said...

Hello Michael,

Thanks for the link and comments about the Pingtung land subsidence and the plans for pond-based solar farms. It's especially timely considering yesterday's passage of Electricity Law amendments which may (or not) address the incumbent Taipower bottlenecks and enable meaningful solar generation and other alternative energy generation rollout in Taiwan.

But in your comments and excerpts I didn't see conclusions about whether the solar solution in Pingtung is viewed as a good idea or not. I appreciated the commentary about the political ecology and screw-ups of over-using the water table which set the stage for subsidence ... but given that backdrop, isn't the solar farm idea a good thing, or at least part of a viable solution?

(Clearly there are also other problems linking to subsidence that also need to be solved - from the excerpts it seems like this part is more or a water utility problem and legal enforcement vs. illegal overuse by everything from fish ponds to schools to industry I guess.)

What do you think?

Mike Fagan said...

"First of all, the once state-owned utility company neglected to provide the necessary pipe infrastructure for Pingtung..."

I rather suspect there are understandable reasons for that, for instance the absence of reservoirs to supply piped water. And that might have something to do with local farmers being opposed to their construction.