High and Dry: Hong Kong’s Water Problem

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp

A soft approach to changing water policy belies the truth: Hong Kong is vulnerable and needs to completely change its relationship with water.

Hong Kong needs a whole new relationship with water.

HK Water Story - 3
THE NEW BOSS: Director of Water Supplies Enoch Lam. (Credit: WSD)

Hongkongers are hydro-gluttons.  According to the Domestic Water Consumption Survey in 2011, the average daily per capita domestic fresh water consumption of Hong Kong was around 130 litres – 20 litres more than the world’s average. We have no residential lawns, no heavy industry, and live in a humid environment. We are the only place in the world that uses seawater in our toilets.  Yet our freshwater consumption somehow outstrips global standards. In an era of heightened sustainability concerns, this is an affront to sensibility – and a clear and present danger.

In an exclusive to HT, the new Director of Water Supplies Mr. Enoch Lam (林天星) points out that “the current water supply arrangement is able to meet the needs of Hong Kong beyond 2030” despite our extravagant water consumption.

The Government is preparing to undertake a review of its Total Water Management Strategy.  Its softly softly approach belies what it really knows – Hong Kong needs a dramatic and immediate overhaul of its entire relationship with water consumption before disaster strikes.

The assumption that Hong Kong’s water supplies are secured to 2030 assume our main supply of fresh water, the Dongjiang River, continues to flow.

Hong Kong has three major sources of water supply: water collected from local catchments (19%), water imported from Dongjiang (59%) and seawater for toilet flushing (23%).  This means the Dongjiang, makes up 76% of our freshwater supply.

Hong Kong needs a dramatic and immediate overhaul of its entire relationship with water consumption before disaster strikes.

That supply is guaranteed by a contract that expires this year and is up for renegotiation.   Assuming no political conflict, no unexpected drought, no contamination, no currency movement, and no black swans for the next 20 years, Hong Kong should be fine. That’s a lot of assumption

Climate change is one factor threatening the stability of water supply in Hong Kong. “The Hong Kong Observatory has projected that Hong Kong is likely to have more droughts in the coming one or two decades”, Mr Lam predicts the Dongjiang River Basin and its water resources will not be spared from drought either. “We have a mission to explore new sources of water supply not affected by climate change.”

Desalination:  It’s back!
Mr Lam’s comments to HT gave advance notice of Mr. John Tsang’s latest budget.  Last May, Secretary for Development Mr Paul Chan (陳茂波) announced a planning and investigation study for a desalination plant in Tseung Kwan O to be completed by the end of this year. The study commenced in December 2012 and the Government reserved a site of about 10 hectares in Tseung Kwan O for the plant.

Mr John Tsang (曾俊華) brought people’s attention to the water issue in his latest budget speech, confirming the desalination plant. “Although the initial annual output of the plant will account for just five to ten per cent of Hong Kong’s total freshwater consumption, I believe seawater desalination can serve as an important water source for Hong Kong in the long run as technology advances.”

This new desalination plant will  be the second in Hong Kong.  The last one, in Lok On Pai in Tuen Mun, shut down in 1982 and was demolished in 1991, as its operation was more expensive than importing water from Dongjiang. However, new technology has lowered the price of desalination. According to a 2012 WSD report to LegCo, Reverse Osmosis (RO) will probably be adopted in the coming desalination plant.  In Singapore, using RO,  a total capacity of 100m gallons of water a day in produced in two plants, meeting, up to 25% of Singapore’s current water demand.  It is estimated that the production of fresh water by RO in Hong Kong will have a unit cost of $12 per cubic metre – three times of that of Singapore.

The Hong Kong Construction Association demands the Government accelerate the progress of replacing old pipes and educate people more of the dire situation facing our water supplies.

The report details: “We expect that there should be room for downward adjustment in the energy consumption in the desalination process. However, with the upward trend of the local electricity tariff, it is considered at the present stage that the desalination cost cannot drop to the price level of Dongjiang water in the near future.”

The Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan answered a LegCo question raised by Ms Claudia Mo (毛孟靜) concerning the high price of desalinated water in Hong Kong.  Despite importation still  being a cheaper option, the expense for Hong Kong government to secure 820m cubic metres of water from Dongjiang has rise from $4.3 per cubic metre in 2012 to $4.8 per cubic metre in 2014.

End of the (almost) free ride
HKSAR will discuss details of continued import with the Central Government when the old agreement ends later this year. Due to the the rising demand for fresh water in Guangdong Province and appreciation of RMB, the future price for Dongjiang water is going to rise. The price gap between importing water from Dongjiang and making our own fresh water by desalination will narrow, perhaps dramatically.

Ms Gloria Chang (張韻琪), Hong Kong Campaigns Manager of Greenpeace, agrees with the plan to build desalination plant in principle, “ if there is a strong need [for water], we need to take action.” She says that even though the cost [to build a desalination plant] is quite high, “it is a good idea if we can control our own water supply, but not totally rely on Guangdong.” However, Chang adds that the government has to address the environmental issues arising from the desalination process.   This includes the energy generated to run the plant and the waste produced after RO.

Mr Ringo Yu (余錫萬), Managing Director of Fraser Construction Company, questions the 5 to 10% estimate, believing the desalination output will only account for 3% of the total water consumption.  Low production of the desalination plant means it will only serve as a contingent resource if water supply from China is compromised. “That 3% is only for an emergency, it couldn’t be used as a constant supply to the Hong Kong people.”

Mr Yu considers the plant a “good start.”. The cost of desalination is expensive but apparently cheaper than the old days and he sees this as promising. “The technology of desalination will be improved because, unlike Hong Kong which is backed up by China, a lot of countries don‘t [have a backup source of water]. They need to use salt water so they are very keen to research and advance the technology. So, I am sure the technology will somehow improve.”

But when? The proposed TKO plants is expected to have an output capacity of 50m cubic metres per annum with provisions for future expansion to 90m cubic metres. It will be a long way to reduce the gap between the desalination capacity in Hong Kong and the current ~700m cubic metres of water from Dongjiang.

Lazy, leaky system
Engineers see more work to be done underground. Leakage in aging pipes is a problem.  Though the Government has introduced advanced technology to detect potential leakage in recent years, repairing and replacing the pipes still appear to be troublesome. Utilities lying underground are close to each other.  Some pipes are located in congested districts and the pipe work often requires a road blockade. The Hong Kong Construction Association (HKCA) demands the Government accelerate progress in replacing old pipes and educate more people about the dire situation facing our water supplies.

“I think Hong Kong should learn from places like Singapore and Canada.  In the case of Singapore, they created the urgency of water conservation…that sort of urgency is what I think the Government should do on top of what they have done [on water conservation]…They [the Government] have been doing quite a lot [on water conservation] but I would say the urgency is still not there”, says the President of the HKCA Mr Thomas Ho (何安誠).

Further straining the water supply are population growth and limited resources in Hong Kong according to HKCA, “I believe [water] conservation should be our main focus – how to educate our people to use less water” says Mr Yu Sai-yen (余世欽), the Vice President of the HKCA. Expressing his personal views, he urged the Government to provide subsidies for people to change their showerheads based on his experience in Canada.

District Metered Areas
Knowing where we lose water matters.  District Metered Areas go a long way to help. DMAs are control points to isolate ‘districts’ of water flow to measure the in and out of throughput, thereby enabling detection of places where water seems to be disappearing – that is, leakage.

 Legislators … would do well to  familiarise themselves with DMAs and monitor the progressive rollout of these systems to ensure it happens as soon as possible.

The WSD has started to move on this front.  According to the WSD,  the “setting up of DMA facilitates continuous monitoring of flow and pressure data, leading to better understanding and control of water distribution systems.  For this purpose, we are progressively setting up DMA across the fresh water distribution network in Hong Kong.  As of December 2013, about 550 DMA have been established.  In the long run, there will be some 2,000 DMA in place covering almost the entire network.”

Legislators concerned about Hong Kong’s water conservation and efficiency would do well to  familiarise themselves with DMAs and monitor the progressive rollout of these systems to ensure it happens as soon as possible.

Conservation is the key
Responding to HKCA on water conservation, Mr Lam reveals that his Department has completed a pilot study for the “Let’s Save 10L Water” campaign and will launch a full scheme this year to “solicit support from Hong Kong citizens for water conservation with a view to reducing the daily per capita fresh water consumption by 10 litres to 120 litres” – still well above world averages.

In September 2009, the Water Supplies Department launched the Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme (WELS) on showers, water taps, washing machines and urinals to inform customers of the levels of water consumption and efficiency of such fixtures and appliances. The Department is planning to extend WELS to cover flow regulators, which are to be installed in water taps or showers to restrict water flow.

Make ‘em pay
Making Hong Kong a water saving city is Director Lam’s vision.   One thing he fails to address is the water tariff policy which will be critical. In a water seminar organised by Civic Exchange, both Ms Su Liu (劉素), Head of Greater China and Water Policy Research of Civic Exchange and Dr Frederick Lee (李煜紹) from The University of Hong Kong pointed out that the water tariff in Hong Kong has remained unchanged since 1995 although the purchase price for Dongjiang water is rising. Dr Lee also considered Hong Kong’s drinking water tariff too low by international standards and even compared to Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.

Radical ideas, such as privatising Hong Kong’s water supply and distribution, may have to be considered.

Financial Secretary Mr John Tsang addressed press after his Budget Speech last week, “the water tariff in Hong Kong has not increased for the past 19 years.” Mr Tsang said the decision has not been made on whether to increase the tariff and the amount of the adjustment. It seems the low water tariff will linger but the benefit of paying a low water price is narrowing when there is a risk that our water supply is running low.

One molecule, many measures needed
Over 76% of our freshwater comes from a source that is even thirstier than we are.  Our current deal is up and we have done little to endear ourselves to our supplier of late with ridiculous antics castigating our mainland neighbours.

This will create political pressure as  the population realises that their high prices are aggravated by a leaky infrastructure.

Low tariffs and a blithe attitude to cheap water mean Hong Kong is due for a shake up. The government is going to have to sell Hong Kong’s people on a new relationship with water as an expensive resource to be paid for and preserved. Radical ideas, such as privatising Hong Kong’s water supply and distribution, may have to be considered.

This will create political pressure as  the population realises that their higher prices are aggravated by a leaky infrastructure.  If they pay, they don’t want the government’s sloth on infrastructure to make things worse.
DMAs, expensive desalination, consumer conservation, higher prices, a new deal with Guangdong (who owe us nothing), and maybe charging for seawater are all going to be Hong Kong’s future.  The question is if we can put  it in place before disaster strikes.   A drought, a contamination incident in the Dongjiang, a political falling out with Guangdong or a black swan could leave Hong Kong high and dry.  If Hong Kong thinks it has time – it doesn’t.

HK Water Story - 2YOUR NEW HOUSEPLANTS: Hong Kong’s new relationship with water may force some rethinks about lifestyle. (Credit: Daderot)