Co-creating a Community of Water: Looking Back on a Century of Water Resource Management and the Transformation of the Environment in the Southwest River Basin
Work on the Wushantou Reservoir and Chianan Irrigation Waterway began in 1920. The year 2024 is the centennial of the opening up of the main waterway called “Cho waterway” in the Yunlin area, the first part of the irrigation system to be completed. 2023 marks the 50th year since the completion of the Zengwen Reservoir, the largest in Taiwan. Important for communities residing in Taiwan’s southwestern plain, water resource projects like these can be viewed as a microcosm of water resource development in Taiwan.
The National Museum of Taiwan History is holding this exhibition at a time when the world is faced with climate change as a means to increase awareness of changes in the water environment. As you walk around the exhibition, we ask that you keep three questions in mind: First, where does the water that flows out of your faucet come from? Second, have you ever wondered if the waterway closest to your house is natural or a manmade drainage ditch or an irrigation waterway? Third, when you look around the world at areas that straddle the Tropic of Cancer, most consist of dry deserts, but southwestern Taiwan, which also lies alongside the Tropic of Cancer, is the nation’s breadbasket. Why is that? We take these things for granted, but should we?
The museum proposed the innovative idea of encouraging discourse and action across disciplines on the idea of “the co-creation of a community of water.” In 2020-2023, the museum conducted a cross-domain study on the issue of the water resource and irrigation development of Taiwan’s southwestern plain to get a fresh perspective on the water environment, an area of study that has been undervalued, and present a new understanding of the water environment from an historical viewpoint. In addition to looking at the development of water resources and the communities over the years, those engaged in water resource projects in Taiwan, and discerning the relationship between water resource projects and the environment, we also noted that the development of the water resource system relied on specialized knowledge and technology based on a complex knowledge system built up over time. In the end, the museum proposed the idea that water resources served to form local society and individuals.
Water environment and the use of water resources
Today, water is easily accessible in Taiwan, but few realize that this is the result of the continual consolidation of water resources over the years. During the Qing era, the natural environment was something to be “used”. In the Japanese era, it was something to be “changed” using the technology available to them. Today, impacted by the increase in environmental awareness, more importance is attached to water resources and our symbiotic relationship with the environment. The administrative district under the Taiwan Prefecture during the Japanese era included the areas that are now Yunlin, Chiayi, and Tainan. By studying unpublished water resource maps and historical information archived at the Chianan and Yunlin Irrigation Associations (Today’s Chianan and Yunlin Management Offices, Irrigation Agency, Ministry of Agriculture), we have come to understand the relationship between water space, water resources, and local communities.
The Chianan Irrigation Waterway, a large-scale irrigation project that uses the local environment and methods suited to local conditions
The steep slopes and rapid flow of Taiwan’s waterways makes storing water difficult. Prior to the 1920s, the farming conditions of the Chianan Plain, an area prone to flooding and droughts, were poor. As a result, the lives of the people residing in this area, consisting of some 150,000 hectares, depended on the whims of the weather. Even worse, there were many low-lying areas with poor drainage couldn’t even be farmed. Faced with the tremendous pressure to increase agricultural production with a limited budget and limited water resources, an engineer by the name of Yoichi Hatta oversaw construction of the Chianan Irrigation Waterway and Wushantou Reservoir projects and implemented a three-year irrigation crop rotation system. Yoichi Hatta along with a group of hydraulic engineers with western-style educations made use of special features of the environment using local materials to accomplish this large-scale canal project in the Chianan Plain that crossed different regions and environmental areas.
People dedicated to Taiwan’s water resources
Water resource engineers and government offices responsible for irrigation today face the same challenges that Yoichi Hatta faced a century ago, including conducting precise surveys, designing, and planning before construction, adhering to rigorous standards during construction, and managing and conducting scheduled and unscheduled upkeep and maintenance on reservoirs after construction. The completion of the Chianan Irrigation Waterway underscores the dedication of Hatta and his team of water resource specialists and demonstrates that they were able to adapt to local conditions on the southwestern plain as they built an irrigation system that met the needs of the time. Today, the “Yoichi Hattas” that work in various organizations and offices have taken up the torch as they continue to employ their expertise in Taiwan’s water resources.
Rediscovering the water culture of southwestern Taiwan
To commemorate the centennial of the opening up of the Chianan Irrigation Waterway, in 2020-2023, the museum formed a research team with water resource experts from the central government. The team studies maps and historical materials stored in the water resource offices, uses museum tools and methods to conduct joint research on historical water resource materials, goes to locations indicated in the historical materials, and conducts readings, discussions, and textual research to find answers in history to water resource issues today.
Water creates “us”
Today’s irrigation system is the result of the continuous integration of water resources, water resource engineering, and the environment over the years. Employing western science and technology, we were able to overcome topographical restrictions, advance from ponds and waterways on a local scale, integrate them into regional irrigation systems, then into irrigations systems that cross regions and environments. Under the influence of climate change, floods and droughts are not just local issues, because water makes us a community of life. Simply put, water is fundamental to the environment and connects all life.
This exhibition is the result of the shared efforts of government offices collaborating in research, writing, and setting up and working with education and civic organizations. In late 2023, the museum and eight groups, including water resource, agricultural, academic, and civic organizations, will present knowledge related to water resources in the form of an exhibition to contribute to the enrichment of Taiwan’s water culture. In addition, the faculty and students of the Taipei National University of the Arts’ Graduate Institute of Museum Studies will help in curating the exhibition. We look forward to this collaboration between industry, government, and academia and call on everyone to recognize the impact of climate change and changes in the water environment, so that Taiwan can be prepared to deal with any contingency.