TUNGSHIH, Taiwan - When worshippers built a temple for the goddess Matsu in south Taiwan 300 years ago, they chose a spot they thought would be at a safe remove from the ocean. They did not count on global warming.
Now, as the island faces rising sea levels, the Tungshih township is forced to set up a new temple nearby, elevated by three metres (10 feet) compared with the original site.
"Right now, the temple is flooded pretty much every year," said Tsai Chu-wu, the temple's chief secretary, explaining why the 63-million-dollar project is necessary.
"Once the new temple is completed, we should be able to avoid floods and the threat of the rising sea, at least for many, many years," he said.
The temple of Matsu, ironically often described as the Goddess of the Sea, is only one example of how global warming is slowly, almost imperceptibly piling pressure on Taiwan.
Mountains cover two thirds of Taiwan, but the heart of the island's economy is concentrated in the remaining third, which stretches down the west coast and consists mostly of flat land near sea level.
This part of Taiwan is home to a string of populous cities, several industry zones, three nuclear power plants -- and a petrochemical complex, built in the 1990s by Formosa Plastics Group for over 20 billion US dollars.
And unlike the temple, none of these crucial economic establishments can possibly be lifted, leaving them exposed to the elements.
"If the sea levels keep rising, part of Taiwan's low-lying western part could be submerged," said Wang Chung-ho, an earth scientist at Taiwan's top academic body Academia Sinica.
An influential Taiwan documentary released earlier this year argued the risk to the petrochemical complex was very real. However, a Formosa Plastics official told AFP stringent construction measures meant there was no danger.
Still, environmentalists consider the risk too high to ignore, and they point out that it is compounded by the overpumping of groundwater both for traditional agriculture and for fish farming.
This has caused the groundwater level to fall and land to subside below sea level in some coastal areas, experts warn.
The greatest extent of seawater encroachment has been estimated to be as far as 8.5 kilometres inland with an affected area of about 104 square kilometres (40 square miles) in southern Taiwan's Pingtung county, according to a study co-written by Wang.
Once low-lying areas are routinely invaded by sea water, it is very hard to turn back the tide, analysts warned.
"They may not be restored and become wastelands within 100 years," warned Hsu Tai-wen, the head of the Hydraulic and Ocean Engineering Department of the National Cheng Kung University in Tainan city in the south of Taiwan.
In its 2007 assessment report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations said that due to the global warming, the world's sea level is projected to rise by up to 0.59 metres before the end of this century.
However, Wang was more pessimistic, citing recent findings that greenhouse gas emissions are growing faster than previously believed.
"As more records show that the global warming is turning for the worse, we estimate that the sea level would rise by up to two metres before the close of the century, or up to 10 times that of the last century," he said.
The residents of the capital Taipei may be among the first to suffer, due to the risk posed to Tamshui, a town within day-trip distance popular because of its lively and picturesque waterfront.
"The streets of coastal cities like Tamshui would be invaded by saline water," said Wang.
The authorities have started drafting the island's first climate change whitepaper, which aims to come up with comprehensive measures to prevent natural disasters caused by rising temperatures.
Apart from rising sea levels, scientists at Academia Sinica warned late last year that global warming would cause the amount of heavy rain dumped on Taiwan to triple over the next 20 years.
The projection was based on statistics showing the incidence of heavy rainfall has doubled in the past 45 years, which the scientists say has coincided with a global rise in temperatures.
The torrential rains unleashed by a typhoon could burst the Shihmen Dam, a reservoir on a river that flows past Taipei county, where millions of people reside, Wang warned.
The whitepaper draft calls for raising existing coastal embankments, constructing dams, improving conservation of river water and soil upstream, and laying idle some areas reclaimed from the ocean and rivers.
"This should have been done earlier," said Hsu, a member of an academic panel that reviewed the whitepaper.