Resentment still runs high on the other side of the border, where some people, offended by how mainlanders were treated during recent noisy protests in Hong Kong, have urged the authorities to hit back by halting the supply of water and electricity to the city.
The chilling message being sent is Hong Kong has no bargaining power at all: it’s a tiny territory on the southern edge of a massive motherland, and in every aspect its existence hinges on imperial magnanimity from the north.
The bottom line: Hong Kong can’t survive without China.
But is the city really so dependent on water and electricity from the mainland?
Here are some plain but long neglected truths.
Historical records show Guangdong started exporting water to Hong Kong in 1964 after China and the British colonial government entered into a contract in which the province agreed to sell no less than 68.2 million cubic meters of water each year to the city.
The Development Bureau has been negotiating with Guangdong for the supply of water after 2015.
When discussing the issue, one must bear in mind that there are some overbearing clauses in the existing deal.
For instance, the annual amount of water supplied is fixed at no less than 820 million cubic meters, mainly from the Dongjiang River, but Hong Kong cannot pay for only the amount it uses.
Rather, the city has to accept, and pay for, whatever amount of water Guangdong wishes to sell to it, even if it is more than what Hongkongers need. It is a package deal, lump sum approach.
Previous reports suggest that in years with high rainfall, levels at the city’s local reservoirs will rise to their full capacity, and thus Dongjiang water will become superfluous.
In 2005, a year with record high annual rainfall, Water Supplies Department data show 109 million cubic meters of unused Dongjiang water, worth HK$300 million (US$38.7 million), flowed into the sea.
Price is another issue.
Hong Kong paid almost HK$4 billion last year under the existing contract, 66 percent more than the average during 2005-2010, although the amount supplied remained largely stable during the past decade.
The city buys raw water from Guangdong and needs to foot the bill for purification at local water treatment works to remove impurities.
Oriental Outlook, a mainland news magazine published by Xinhua, reported in 2011 that Dongjiang water was sold at 4.32 yuan (69 US cents) per cubic meter to Hong Kong but at a mere fraction of that to cities in Guangdong — 0.5 yuan per cubic meter to Dongguan and 0.96 yuan per cubic meter to Shenzhen.
In 2002, Singapore’s then prime minister Goh Chok Tong complained that the water neighboring Malaysia supplied was way too expensive. His Malaysian counterpart, Mahathir Mohamad, retorted that the unit price China charged for the water it sold to Hong Kong was 260 times the price in the Malaysia-Singapore deal.
Guangdong Investment (00270.HK), the provincial government-owned conglomerate, is the parent of Yue Gang (Guangdong-Hong Kong) Water Supply Co. Ltd., which supplies Dongjiang water to Hong Kong.
Guangdong Investment’s revenue from water sales to the territory increased 5.8 percent to HK$3.74 billion in 2013, accounting for 46 percent of the state-owned enterprise’s total revenues.
Clearly it is a lucrative business.
Does Hong Kong have to rely on water from Guangdong?
Not necessarily. The city’s High Island Reservoir, built in 1979 in a narrow strait in Sai Kung, has a capacity of 280 million cubic meters; Shenzhen Reservoir, which supplies water to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, has a much smaller capacity of 45.77 million cubic meters.
Plover Cove Reservoir, also built off Hong Kong’s coast, has a capacity of 230 million cubic meters.
Hong Kong has a cluster of smaller reservoirs designed to serve specific districts, but since the city started using Dongjiang water, many of them have lain unused.
With improvements in desalination technology, the cost gap between desalinated water and Dongjiang water is narrowing.
The government should start building a proposed large desalination plant in Tseung Kwan O and other facilities for water reclamation, greywater recycling and rainwater harvesting.
The city is far less dependent on electricity imported from the mainland.
Two local power companies – CLP Group and Hongkong Electric Co. Ltd. – operate advanced power stations fueled by coal or natural gas in places including Black Point and Castle Peak in Tuen Mun and Lamma Island.
The nuclear power plant in Shenzhen’s Daya Bay has been supplying electricity to Hong Kong since 1994. CLP is a major investor in the companies that own and operate the plant.
Electricity hasn’t flowed just one way from Guangdong to Hong Kong.
The province was struggling with power shortages in the early 1980s, and CLP supplied 420,000 kWh of electricity per day to Shenzhen’s Shekou district until 1995. As a result, Shenzhen was the only mainland city back then not plagued by frequent power outages.
Nowadays, Guangdong, through Guangzhou-based China Southern Power Grid Co. Ltd., still needs to import electricity from Hong Kong in peak seasons or to balance the load on the grid.
Cross-border power exchanges intensified after the completion of the Guangzhou Pumped Storage Power Station in 2000, as low-cost off-peak electricity from Hong Kong and Guangdong can be stored for the province’s use in peak hours.
Power grids on both sides of the border are now connected with four two-way 400 kilovolt high-voltage transmission lines.
These allow emergency backup power to be supplied if facilities on either side shut down unexpectedly.
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