29 February 2020
Officials (inset) are shown at the signing of an agreement for the supply of Dongjiang water to Hong Kong. Photo: HK government
Officials (inset) are shown at the signing of an agreement for the supply of Dongjiang water to Hong Kong. Photo: HK government

Water politics: It couldn’t happen here, could it?

Hong Kong produces its own water but gets 80 percent of it from mainland China.

That fact alone makes water a strategic cross-border issue but mostly a matter of life and death for Hong Kong.

So, when Hong Kong and Guangdong province marked the 50th anniversary of a water supply agreement, the event highlighted a reality that is both symbolic and paradoxical.

The multi-billion-dollar contract should be no more than a business deal. Yet, it has profound implications for cross-border relations.

“Patriotic water” is being thrown around by some people to underline its significance.

At the anniversary ceremony in Hong Kong on Thursday, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said China has been showing kindness to Hong Kong by giving top priority to water supply to its seven million residents.

That shows China’s continued support for Hong Kong and reaffirms the close relationship between the two sides, he said.

There was scant mention of the supply deal being a commercial transaction.

It’s not cheap, to begin with. Hong Kong taxpayers will pay Dongjiang Water HK$4.2 billion in 2015 and HK$4.8 billion in 2017, the last year of the new contract. 

The figure is up 20 percent from the previous agreement.

That aside, the ceremony was a subtle reminder that, as in nearly every aspect of their lives, Hong Kong people are under China’s thumb, never mind that “one country, two systems”, which guarantees their rights and freedoms as a free society in a communist country, has 32 years to run.

It’s ludicrous to think China will play the “patriotic water” card to whip Hong Kong into line but Hongkongers nonetheless fear the prospect of the tap suddenly running dry.

Hong Kong may not be the perfect example of it, but so-called water politics has been a long-running transnational issue from Singapore and Malaysia to certain countries in Africa.

In June, Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen county will start importing water from Fujian province.

Shanmei Reservoir in Quanzhou, Fujian’s largest city, will supply 15,000 cubic meters of fresh water a day, rising to 55,000 cubic meters in the long run, according to Taiwan’s Water Resources Agency.

The reservoir holds 655 million cubic meters of water.

The water supply agreement between Kinmen and Fujian could be even more sensitive than the one Hong Kong has with Guangdong because of an ongoing dispute between Taipei and Beijing over the island’s political status.

China has treated Taiwan as a renegade province since nationalists fled to the island in 1949 during the communist takeover in the mainland.

Realistically, Kinmen’s economic well-being hinges on water supply from Fujian.

Like Hong Kong, Taiwan views water as a strategic resource on which China can leverage its political agenda. It is more than a lifeline. 

Recently, Zhang Zhijun, head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told the local government in Kinmen that a planned casino on the island could jeopardize a cross-strait initiative to link trade, transport and postal services between Kinmen and nearby Matsu with the Fujian ports of Xiamen and Fuzhou.

Zhang’s remarks amounted to direct intervention in Taiwan’s internal affairs given that the casino project is an undertaking of the Taipei government.

China does not need drastic measures such as turning off the tap to achieve its political objectives.

But those options are there all the same — just in case.

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EJ Insight writer