We all know that water is a scarce resource but few Hong Kong people think twice about turning on the tap.
And that’s saying nothing about how costly it is to keep the tap running.
Hong Kong will spend HK$13.5 billion (US$1.74 billion) to buy water from Guangdong province under a new three-year deal.
That is the cost of 820 million cubic meters of untreated water from Dongjiang River, a 6.5 percent increase from last year.
Hong Kong must pay the full amount whether or not it consumes the entire quota.
Enoch Lam, director of the Water Supplies Department, said water use in Hong Kong rarely reached 800 million cubic meters a year in the past decade, which means the government has been paying HK$5 billion for water we did not use.
At one time, the government considered switching to a scheme under which Hong Kong would pay only for the water it consumed.
However, Guangdong turned down the idea, saying it would be hard to ensure stable water supply under such an arrangement.
Given Hong Kong lacks bargaining power in negotiating water supply, we should start taking action to conserve water and explore new sources of supply before it’s too late.
Firstly, the government should raise water tariffs to discourage wastage.
Hong Kong’s water tariffs, frozen since 1995, are among the world’s lowest. The first 12 cubic meters of water usage is free of charge. Households pay HK$266 for every 100 cubic meters of drinking water, one-third that in Singapore and a seventh that in New York.
As a result, the Water Supplies Department has been running losses for years. These are expected to widen over the next three years thanks to the new supply deal with Guangdong.
Hong Kong people take water for granted because it’s cheap. They consume 220 liters per person a day, 30 per cent above the world average.
Making them pay for wasteful consumption is one way to improve public awareness of water scarcity.
Secondly, the government should work toward water self-sufficiency. Financial Secretary John Tsang and economist Lam Pun-lee have called for expanding Hong Kong’s seawater desalination capacity.
Tsang has warned against overreliance on supply from Dongjiang River amid increased demand from growing cities in Guangdong such as Heyuan, Huizhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen.
Hong Kong sources about 30 percent of its water supply locally.
Much like Hong Kong, Singapore was once a city with limited water resources. The latter had to buy vast amounts of water from Malaysia since the 1960s.
But the two cities have dealt with the water supply issue differently.
While Hong Kong began an era of water dependency by buying water from the mainland, Singapore developed technology to turn waste water into drinkable water.
Singapore has been quite successful. The Public Utility Board of Singapore expects to meet 55 percent of the country’s water demand with the homegrown technology by 2060.
Already, Singapore exports the technology to markets such as Tianjin, Dubai and Algeria.
The good news for Hong Kong is that it’s finally making an effort to catch up with its water needs with seawater desalination.
The technology was adopted during the 1970s to 1980s but was abandoned because of high fuel costs.
Tsang said the growing global popularity of reverse osmosis has helped lower the cost of desalination from HK$35 per cubic meter in the 1970s to just HK$12 now.
The government has chosen Tseung Kwan O to build desalination plants which are expected to go into operation in 2020, providing about 5 percent of Hong Kong’s water supply.
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