Running dry: Hong Kong in need of sustainable water strategy

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Time is running out for Hong Kong to make the right choices regarding water sustainability in the coming future.

Photo Credit: Chris Lusher

Author’s Note: This article has been edited for accuracy.

It would not be an over-exaggeration to say that Hong Kong’s fresh water situation is a tricky one, made up of numerous factors that result with a problem perhaps too convoluted to resolve within the limited timeframe we have. These issues include Hong Kongers’ unsustainably high water-usage, reservoir leakage and spillage, and the potential of a drought.

According to a 2016 report by LegCo, Hong Kong has three water resources: local yield, the Dongjiang, and seawater. The majority of Hong Kong’s water is from the Dongjiang – 62% to be exact. 22% is from the seawater that is for flushing, and 16% consists of the local yield. Hong Kong’s local yield is lacking as there is a dearth of fresh water resources, with the government having to make up for the lack of natural water sources by constructing water gather grounds that takes up about one-third of the territory. These resources come nowhere near to sufficiently meeting water demands, and while the Dongjiang is not in danger of running out, the way in which Hong Kong is relying on it as a major source is not sustainable. Hong Kong must look for new alternative sources of freshwater in preparation for a drought, while innovating ways to limit unnecessary water consumption and wastage for a more eco-conscious future.

For a compact urban jungle, Hong Kongers use a shocking amount of freshwater resources. According to an article in the SCMP, “In 2008, 129.1 litres of freshwater were consumed per capita per day. By 2014, this had ­increased to 132 litres per person.” One of Hong Kong’s leading experts on water sustainability, Professor Frederick Lee at the Hong Kong University, has spoken extensively about this matter. Due to the highly-subsidised water tariffs, the price that Hong Kongers pay for water does not reflect its true cost. A report released in 2014 by LegCo claimed that Hong Kong prices for freshwater are substantially lower than those of other countries of similar GDP. According to Dr Lee, a family of three should be paying more than double of what they currently pay in their water bill.

While the intention of this plan seems straightforward enough when it comes to decreasing overall water usage, the government should be careful with administering a water tariff increase. Hong Kong is already a hard city to live in for those living in lower-income households, and a tariff increase across the board for a necessity like freshwater would make lives more difficult for those who already struggle to make ends meet. Civic Exchange chairman Evan Auyang acknowledged that water sustainability reforms should not prevent lower-income homes from accessing a liveable freshwater supply: “I’m not saying we should raise the cost of water for everyone[,] but for certain private companies that are using it in very large quantities, you should charge them more.”

Are there social structures that could be put in place to prevent placing further hardships on the poor in Hong Kong? Future actions have to include those that would work to decrease the amount of water loss from leaking reservoirs and theft; this waste is up to one-third of the city’s water, or HK$1.35 billion in revenue. Considering all the given factors in this issue, there is still a lot to discuss before being able to write up a multi-faceted legislation for water reform.
Such discussions are important to have amongst water sustainability experts across Hong Kong; this is why events like Harbour Times Forums are so crucial for ensuring that a variety of ideas are heard.