From ripples to waves: Changing the unsustainable trajectory of Hong Kong’s freshwater use

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Though a drought is not near, Hong Kong’s lack of action regarding its wasteful use of water will leave it treading if a crisis strikes in the near future. 

Photo Credit: Chris Lusher

The most apparent problem regarding Hong Kong’s water supply is perhaps the overconsumption on the domestic level. To get an idea of just how much water Hongkongers use on a day-to-day basis, per capita the total water usage is at approximately 180 litres, which includes the seawater used for flushing at about 50 litres a day. Therefore a total of 130 litres of freshwater is used by each individual on a daily basis. Compared to neighbouring cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, some of which use up to 15 litres less, Hong Kong is clearly the anomaly. Water is already globally scarce; only 2% of the world’s water is actually potable freshwater while Hong Kong is one of the most water scarce regions on Earth, making climate change a factor that only exacerbates this already-pressing situation.

While there are too many facets in the big picture to include all of them coherently, this article plans to tackle in further detail the larger issues surrounding water sustainability in Hong Kong. It summarises Hong Kong’s freshwater supply history, discusses water’s true value, and then examines the staggering amount of water that is lost annually. This report also elaborates on how Hong Kong can take advantage of water technologies along with providing specific examples, followed by a closer look at Singapore as a case study that Hong Kong can model itself after when pursuing a sustainable future.  

The history of Hong Kong’s freshwater supply

Water sustainability efforts are currently at a large disadvantage in part due to the lack of public knowledge surrounding the issue. According to Dr Frederick Lee, Associate Professor at the University of Hong Kong, the reason for the public lack of awareness of the city’s freshwater supply can be found within the history of Hong Kong. Since the early 1980s Hong Kong has worked under the DongShen Agreement, a water supply agreement with the Guangdong region. In the present day, this river provides Hong Kong with about 80% of its freshwater, and it is as Lee says, “a political arrangement that guarantees that even if there is a major drought in the region, Hong Kong is given first priority to get their water from the river basin.” The origin story of this plentiful supply that remains largely unknown to the average Hongkonger, and it is this disconnect between the citizens and the source of their water that creates what Lee refers to as “a sense of complacency.” He cites a major drought that occurred in 2011, where some major cities in the Guangdong province were forced to ration water, while Hongkongers remained “insulated from any impacts”, completely sheltered from the widespread water shortage in the region.

The true value of water

Hong Kong needs to change how it values its water because people don’t prioritise it as highly as other resources. The fact that Hong Kong is next to the water gives people the wrong impression that there is plenty of it for them to use. The general public is also ignorant of the true value of water because it is heavily subsidised by the government. In the fiscal year of 1995-1996 water tariffs were frozen, and thus while the cost of water has gone up over time, the fees have remained the same with citizens paying less than half of the total unit cost of production. The current system in place for freshwater leaves people completely unaware of how much water they are using per month, how much the water they use is really worth, and how unsustainable the usage habits are on the large scale.

In the words of Joyce Lau, Communications Director at think tank Civic Exchange, “Your average person doesn’t know these basic facts. They don’t know the water’s imported, they don’t know the water’s heavily subsidised. You turn on the tap, it comes out endlessly, it’s extremely cheap, and that’s all people know.” As a restaurant owner, Grander Water’s Kevin Tam agrees that the people simply are not being charged the fair price for water. The solution to this problem seems simple: raise the tariffs on water, and people will waste less. But the reality is that such a legal proposition would cause an uproar amongst citizens and businesses alike; this reason alone is one of the largest roadblocks preventing Hong Kong from becoming a water sustainable city.

An immediate concern of raised water tariffs is the negative effect it would have on the lower to middle class in Hong Kong. Lau assures that this will not be the case: “We’ve been very clear from the beginning that any tariff raise cannot hurt your average working class Hong Kong family.” Hong Kong already has systems in place that ensure the lower-class would not suffer unjustly were tariff reform to occur. Civic Exchange’s recent report on this subject, The Illusion of Plenty: Hong Kong’s Water Security, Working Towards Regional Water Harmony, states that the average household’s water bill is currently HK$48 a month; in 2015-2016 13% of Hongkongers were fully subsidised for their water usage. Each individual is also allotted a generous 12 cubic metres of freshwater (approximately 20 bathtubs) for free every four months. While ensuring that any future water sustainability efforts don’t negatively affect the lives of the low to middle class, there is little room for complaint considering how insignificant and highly subsidised the water bill is in comparison to other living expenses. Since households with higher water usage tend to be of higher income, the idea is that the well-off should pay – at a minimum – the amount it costs the government to purchase water from China. “Water is a precious resource,” says Grander Water’s Kevin Tam, “You can’t just put a price tag on it that is so little that people don’t really care. For Hong Kong it might be a valid point to increase the cost. Until your average citizen in Hong Kong can say, ‘We’re using all sorts of different technologies to help save water’, increasing the price of water is the only way.’”

One-third of Hong Kong’s freshwater down the drain

Both the problems and solutions underlying Hong Kong’s water problem are not difficult to identify. The problem is that there are hefty obstacles that prevent water sustainability in Hong Kong from becoming a reality. Lee states that in order for the Legislative Council to even seriously consider such reform, Hong Kong needs to get a handle of the immense amount of water loss that occurs annually from leakage in government mains and private pipes, as well as theft. Together, The Illusion of Plenty found that up to one-third of this supply is lost, totalling to approximately HK$1.35 billion in revenue. Although the government celebrates the successes of the Total Water Management (TWM) Strategy, which was an initiative begun in 2003 that reduced the amount of wastage from government pipes in the past 10 years, this is not where the efforts should stop.

Sam Inglis, Environmental Research Analyst at ADM Capital Foundation, says that while the leakage reductions of public pipes from 25% to 15% (a reduction of 10% over 15 years) are remarkable, this is only “the first phase.” “More must be done,” he posits, “with private leakage certainly being made a priority.” According to Inglis, the WSD have no plans to deal with private leakage in the near future. While commendable, the work of the TWM have proven to be inadequate for conservation and planning for Hong Kong’s long-term sustainability.

Embracing water sustainable technology

Another path of consideration to approach this dilemma is through water technologies. While strategies such as desalination are unsustainable due to the costliness of the process, there are numerous other options that are not hard to adopt. There has been already a variety of water-saving systems that can be installed in upcoming building projects, as well as technologies that can be incorporated to make older buildings more sustainable. Smaller examples include faucets and shower heads, which have been long available on the market, that disperse water in a way that gets the job done with less. Tam describes what he calls “a very simple technology”, where the outlet from which the water flows consists of layers that chop the water forming bubbles, reducing water usage by 30% whenever someone turns on the tap. This technology uses netting that distributes the water with higher pressure and lower speed, scattering the bubbled water in different directions. It successfully saves on water use without noticeably altering the experience when taking a shower or running the sink faucet. Other technology include toilets equipped with a dual flush mechanism which can save on the amount of water that is flushed on a daily basis. The most effective way to take advantage of these technologies would be to have them installed in new buildings, but according to Lee, these water-efficient appliances are not being made a part of these buildings’ infrastructure. That, he claims, is a strategy most likely to succeed if the government creates regulations that would administer their installation.

What buildings can also do to decrease the amount of water they let go to waste is by making adjustments to their water tank systems. According to Tam, thousands of buildings in Hong Kong have water tanks for commercial and domestic use. When these water tanks are due for frequent cleaning, especially since Hong Kong’s geography makes these water tanks more privy to sedimentation buildup, this creates a lot of waste, as cleaning requires that the entire tank is dumped out then refilled afterwards.

Grander Water is trying to ameliorate this wastage by encouraging buildings to reduce their tank cleanings to only once a year through the utilisation of Grander technology. “We can implement Grander technology into any tank, and basically after you change the water once it’s going to stay clean because it actually gets all the sediment off of the tank itself.” He also claims that within four to six weeks’ time, there should be a visible improvement in the water quality that is distributed from the tank. They already have two successful Grander system projects, one located at Tipco Tower in Thailand and the other at Lido Hotel in Guangzhou. The simple installation completed at Lido Hotel in 2012 has completely solved many of the hotel’s problems such as sedimentation, rust, and bacteria buildup, improving the overall quality of water in the building and substantially decreasing the amount of freshwater that would have been wasted from regular tank cleanings. Looking to the future, Tam hopes to eventually develop the sort of technology that would be able to make water a naturally renewable resource.

Singapore: setting an example for Hong Kong

Singapore is a good city to compare to Hong Kong as they share similar cityscapes and its people lead similar lifestyles as well. Despite their shared traits, Singapore has taken strides to reduce its per capita domestic water consumption, having decreased it from 165 litres per day in 2003 to the current 148. They are also aiming to further reduce it by another 8 litres to 140 per capita by 2030. While they set a shining example of water sustainability, the major difference that may render Singapore a difficult one to follow is that the government and its populace operate very differently from those of Hong Kong. Inglis states, “One of the things that Singapore does and has done for a really long time is they have made it a national priority to emphasise the importance and value of water.” Such a strategy based on encouraging action for the sake of nationalistic pride would be futile in Hong Kong, as its citizens do not share the same attitudes that are driving the water sustainability efforts in Singapore. “For Singapore,” he continues, “it’s an existential threat potentially. They have a deal with Malaysia, and because they have a somewhat contentious relationship at times, they don’t want to be held over a barrel effectively if a water crisis does come about.” Hong Kong does not share this situation and therefore can only take a limited amount of inspiration from Singapore.

The way in which Hong Kong should follow in Singapore’s footsteps, according to Lee, is through the maximisation of local freshwater resources. Singapore has a future plan to reduce its imports from the current 40% to 0% by 2060. As of 2015, only 16.6% of Hong Kong’s freshwater comes from its public and privately owned local sources. In order to reach a point of ideal sustainability, Lee posits that the government “needs to cap and reduce” the amount of water it imports from China until the city is compelled to increase its reliance on local resources. Further research needs to be conducted in order to calculate an accurate depiction of how much Hong Kong’s local resources can realistically be maximised, and how much the importation of Dongjiang water can be minimised.

Conclusion: Bridging the gap between ideas and reality

Given all the factors at play, it is evident that there are missing pieces that need to be placed in order to administer the aforementioned solutions to better address Hong Kong’s water sustainability problem. While the public needs to pressure the government to prioritise this issue in order to ensure an appropriate response, this will not happen until the government invests in massive campaigning to raise public awareness. This would then welcome opportunities to legislate and enforce water-saving regulations. But before even considering tariff raises and other legislative reform, existing issues such as water wastage and leakage need to be addressed. While making Hong Kong more water sustainable does not necessarily require technology we don’t already have, Hong Kong needs to make better use of creative solutions found in water technologies that are not new as far as sustainable technology goes. Effective utilisation of these simple technologies would noticeably improve water usage without inconveniencing the lives of domestic consumers. In addendum, water sustainability in Hong Kong is still a young endeavour, and there are still much information to uncover in order to formulate a holistic solution. Bringing all these facets together, Hong Kong will be able to pave the way to a future that ensures a harmonious relationship between its water, the government, and its people.