26 August 2019
A photo of Hong Kong's Plover Cove Reservoir taken on March 3, 2015. Hong Kong used to be self-sufficient in fresh water supply back in the 1960s and 1970s. Photo: Xinhua
A photo of Hong Kong's Plover Cove Reservoir taken on March 3, 2015. Hong Kong used to be self-sufficient in fresh water supply back in the 1960s and 1970s. Photo: Xinhua

Hong Kong must regain self-reliance over fresh-water supply

If you think land is the scarcest natural resource in Hong Kong, think again.

Because as it turns out, it is actually the shortage of fresh water, rather than land, that is likely to cause a major crisis for the city in the long run if we don’t plan ahead right now.

At present, around 70 percent of Hong Kong’s fresh water is being imported from the Dongjiang River in the neighboring Guangdong province.

As the city is relying heavily on the Dongjiang River for fresh water, it may give rise to three grave issues in the long run: 1. water prices are likely to keep rising; 2. our fresh water supply is likely to get increasingly unstable, and 3. the quality of the fresh water we buy is likely to keep deteriorating.

First, water prices have continued to soar over the past decade. Under our previous 10-year agreement concluded back in 2008, we had to pay around HK$2.5 billion for our tap water.

Yet under the latest agreement renewed in 2017, the price jumped to over HK$4.77 billion. To put that in perspective, we were paying around HK$9.8 for each cubic meter of fresh water from the Dongjiang River in 2017, and that rate will continue to go up in the days ahead.

And secondly there is the issue of unstable supply. As demand for fresh water from mainland China’s cities along the Dongjiang River has continued to rise, the river itself has been literally draining in recent years, with its average volume of water down almost 30 percent from 33.1 billion cubic meters between 1956 and 2005 to only 23.1 billion cubic meters between 2001 and 2010.

If the Dongjiang River can no longer meet the rising demand for fresh water among mainland cities, it is inevitable that the Guangdong authorities may have to reduce water supply to Hong Kong in the future.

Last but not least, the Dongjiang River has been plagued by industrial pollution in recent years. Since 2010, the river has seen at least seven major contamination incidents, partly due to the irresponsible discharge of toxic industrial waste into it by factories along its banks.

As such, it is hardly a paranoia that our city could again face a major water supply crisis in the coming days if we continue to rely overwhelmingly on the Dongjiang River for fresh water.

In fact Hong Kong used to be self-sufficient in fresh water supply back in the 1960s and 1970s, and was once the world’s pioneer in the application of cutting-edge technologies to fresh water storage and supply.

However, the former British colonial government stopped developing our fresh water supply system and instead started importing fresh water from the Guangdong province following the conclusion of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. Hence, the city’s current dependency on the mainland for fresh water.

Perhaps Hong Kong can draw some useful insights on water resource development from the experience of Singapore, which has been working aggressively to reduce its dependency on the neighboring Malaysia for fresh water supply by building large-scale and state-of-the-art seawater desalination as well as water recycling plants.

Even though currently Singapore still needs to import over half of its fresh water from Malaysia, two fully operational desalination plants, the first of which was built in 2005, are already supplying 25 percent of the city-state’s fresh water, with one more of these plants in the pipeline. It is estimated that Singapore can achieve total self-sufficiency in fresh water supply by 2060.

In recent years Singapore has become the world’s leading research & development center on technologies related to fresh water resources, and has begun to export its technologies to countries in North Africa, Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The city-state’s untiring efforts at achieving permanent sovereignty over water resources have apparently paid off, as recently Malaysia has imported fresh water from Singapore amid a drought in the former.

Perhaps one day Hong Kong too can achieve self-reliance in fresh water and in turn export clean water to Guangdong. But for that, work must start now.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 30

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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