Six things you should know about Taiwan’s water sector

Oct. 5, 2015
Having just returned from a week in Kaohsiung, Tom Freyberg shares his insights on the island's growing water industry...

I’ve just returned from a week in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Avoiding a typhoon that struck the north of island only days before, I was there to report on the Aqua Taiwan show, now in its second year. Like any relatively new trade show in the region, the event is still finding its feet. Yet after some investigating, I observed many things about the country’s expanding water sector. Here are my six insights.

1) Reclaimed water will quench Taiwan’s thirsty manufacturing industry

Taiwan is approaching wastewater reuse from a different angle to the well-publicised NEWater story in Singapore. Despite historically receiving some of the highest rainfall levels globally, the island has failed to harness this water for potable and industrial purposes. As a result, many manufacturers have urged the Taiwanese government to do more. The industry wants a solid, future proof water supply.

To feed its thirsty network of manufacturing plants, Taiwan plans to clean up municipal wastewater. A total of NT$15.2 billion (US$465.8 million) will be invested to develop six wastewater reuse plants, piping reclaimed water to industrial sources. Two tenders will kick-start the process (read WWi story). First up will be port city Kaohsiung with a 70,000 m3/day plant. A second will follow in in Yongkang, Tainan.

Jennifer Chen, deputy director general from the Kaoshiung City Government told me that Taiwan needs to globalise and that she’s encouraging international companies to join forces with local companies to bid.

2) The price is not always right

For wastewater reuse to work for municipal supplies, it needs to be accepted by the customer i.e the public. For it to work for industry, the economics need to be right. According to Taiwan Water Corporation (TWC), water tariffs have been frozen on the island for two decades. As a result, water has been too cheap on the island for too long. There has been no incentive for industrial users to even consider reclaimed wastewater as an alternative, until now.

Hsiao-Hhua Chen, VP of Taiwan’s EDF (Environment and Development Foundation) told me that the problem has been to find willing end users for reclaimed water. The low price has been the limiting factor. It they can find cheaper resources, then of course, the cheapest price wins. A desperate need for ultrapure water for the country’s semi-conductor industry, coupled with the “master plan” to use reclaimed water should hopefully by-pass the issue of cost, given the sheer demand.

3) Sub-surface desalination intake is not just impacting California

Currently there are three small scale desalination plants operating in Taiwan, all on the island of Penghu. Although a tender was issued for a fourth by the Taiwan Water Corporation, it received only one bid, from engineering firm Kuo Toong International, who operates two of the existing plants.

Manager Phil Hsieh told me that due to protests from local fishermen on the potential impact of an open intake, the tender mandates that a sub-surface intake is used instead. As we have witnessed in California, where a similar mandate is underway – potentially adding hundreds of millions of dollars to new desalination projects – this is causing controversy. Local bidders apparently won’t go near this fourth tender. They believe an extraordinarily hard rock on the island will be difficult to drill for the intake. Kuo Toong International says it will be employing a contractor who has experience in this area. It this project reaches fruition, it would come online by the end of 2017.

Interestingly, a large scale desalination plant could also be used on mainland Taiwan by the end by 2020. Hsieh said that a 300,000 m3/day project is expected to go to tender but not until 2019. A third of produced water will be used for household water, with the remaining two thirds for industrial purposes. The latter would be used by the Southern Taiwan Science Park and Taiwanese semiconductor company, TSMC.

4) Taiwan gets smart on NRW/leakage

Non-revenue water (NRW) is a problem on the island. In 2013, the Taiwan Water Corporation reported a 27% NRW rate. This worked out to be a NT$2.5 million per day financial loss (US$76,000). In the same year, water leakage was reported to be 18.9%. To reduce these figures, the “Water Leakage Reduction Plan (2013-2022) sets out to reduce water leakage to under 15% by 2021.

Part of the problem is that it’s very common in South East Asia for people to try and cheat meter readings. Eric Lin from Taiwanese metering company, EMS, told me that they either use magnets to stop the meters, by-pass with pipes or reverse them in order to give false readings. Advanced Meter Reading (AMR) technology has picked up pace in Asia and developed to counter such tampering. Taiwan is trying to share its knowledge on this area outside the island: EMS has just signed a new contract in the Philippines to supply 1000 homes with its smart meters.

5) Necessity is the mother of invention

Days before the event, reports showed that super typhoon Dujuan killed two people and left more than 300 injured in Taiwan after sweeping across the North of the island on its way to China. Typhoons are a real threat in Taiwan and the destruction left can leave thousands without electricity and water. The need for scaled down water solutions in emergency situations is driving innovation

The country’s Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) has developed a four-stage, mobile water treatment unit it calls QWater. Using biocarriers, activated carbon, membranes and finally UV technology, the unit can provide 15 m3/day of drinkable water for 5000 people. Already deployed to the Philippines and used in Taiwan for typhoon relief, the scaled down system is impressive and demonstrates the adage that necessity is the mother of invention.

6) The point-of-use market shouldn’t be ignored

Mixing plant-scale water technology with domestic, point-of-use (POU) filters in an exhibition can be contradictory: if the utility does its job of providing clean water then in theory additional filters shouldn’t be needed.

Yet domestic water equipment providers sell on the principal that even the cleanest of water from utilities can be contaminated in the “last mile” from the source to the tap – i.e. antiquated piping before communities.

Global Water Solutions’ Adam Bell told me that the rise of Taiwan’s industry has led to a lot of heavy metal pollution in the island’s groundwater. As result, Taiwan, as well as China are big markets for them. Also the frequent typhoons can increase turbidity in the water. He lives in a community of 40 people supplied by a water well. After a typhoon, he says there’s a lot of turbidity in the water and it can come through discoloured, so this drives the market for domestic filters.

The POU market is growing in South East Asia and cannot be ignored. It should be looked upon to complement utility solutions, not compete with them.


- The full article on Taiwan’s water industry – challenges and opportunities - will be published in the December-January edition of WWi magazine. Sign up here to receive your free copy.

About the Author

Tom Freyberg

Tom Freyberg is an experienced environmental journalist, having worked across a variety of business-to-business titles. Since joining Pennwell in 2010, he has been influential in developing international partnerships for the water brand and has overseen digital developments, including 360 degree video case studies. He has interviewed high level figures, including NYSE CEO’s and Environmental Ministers. A known figure in the global water industry, Tom has chaired and spoken at conferences around the world, from Helsinki, to London and Singapore. An English graduate from Exeter University, Tom completed his PMA journalism training in London.

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