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The race to solve Hong Kong's silent water crisis

March 07, 2022
topics: Sustainable Development
by: Marie Bröckling
located in: Hong Kong
tags: China, drought, Hong Kong, water

Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated places in the world, is facing a silent water crisis. Unnoticed by the majority of its eight million residents, the water crisis is bringing the city to a clash between its above-average demand for fresh water and a projected decline in supply. FairPlanet spoke to experts about their understanding of the impending water shortage and what they believe can be done to solve it.

For the past four decades, Hong Kong has relied on imported water from China. But competition over water is rising in the region and local think tanks predict that the impacts of global warming and industrial pollution will further deteriorate the quality and quantity of water available. 

"Hong Kong won’t be able to rely on the Dongjiang River to provide the bulk of its freshwater supply in the future," Berto Lee, an environmental scientist and former programme manager at Civic Exchange, a local think tank, told FairPlanet. "This is quite an existential issue."

The coastal city is surrounded by sea in almost every direction and summers bring subtropical humidity and heavy rainfall. Contrary to popular belief, Hong Kong suffers from a scarcity of water. The problem lies in its lack of lakes and rivers, which are necessary to store the valuable rainwater. 

"Hong Kong gets enough rainfall to meet 100 percent of its water demand, but it is too concentrated in time, falling over just a few short months, which makes it hard to collect and store," David von Eiff, a research associate specialising in water economy at the City University in Hong Kong, told FairPlanet. 

Importing an illusion

To make up for its insufficient water supplies, Hong Kong imports more than two-thirds of its fresh water from China. Every day, more than 1.8 million m3 of water is extracted from Dongjiang in Southern China. It is pumped across the border, crisscrossing the city in a system of public pipes that provide fresh water to the taps of Hong Kong’s buildings and remote islands. The system has worked without fail since 1982 when Hong Kong last had to ration its water. 

It works so well, in fact, that it has created an illusion of abundance in a naturally water-scarce place. 

Hong Kongers consume more water than other developed regions in Asia. Most of it is used for cooking, cleaning and showering. The trend of overuse is fueled by below-average water tariffs, which are heavily subsidised.

"Water is too cheap, it neither reflects the water’s true value nor does it cover the cost of production," said Berto Lee. "There are virtually no incentives to conserve water."

But the future of Hong Kong’s water supply remains insecure, as an economic boom in the region has heightened competition for fresh water from the Dongjiang, forcing the Guangdong government in 2006 to cap the amount of water that can be extracted. 

The Dongjiang provides water for 40 million people in eight major cities and is "very close to its exploitation limit," according to Hong Kong’s water department. Rising temperatures, pollution and extreme weather further threaten the main pillar of Hong Kong’s water supply.

Consequently, the price at which Hong Kong buys Dongjiang water has more than doubled over the past decade, from $2.3 in 2009 to $5.9 per m3 in 2019. Dr von Eiff warned that even before Dongjiang runs out of water, the costs of importing will make the system unsustainable. 

"Soon it will make more economic sense to desalinate or reclaim water," he said. 

Prior to the two-year drought that hit in 2008 and drove up importing costs of Dongjiang water, desalination was not considered economical. In 1981, a fully functioning desalination plant was shut down in Hong Kong after only four years of operation because costs were deemed too high. 

Faced with rising water prices and the need to diversify water sources to prepare for droughts, the water department revived plans for a desalination plant in the early 2000s as an additional means of water sourcing. A new desalination plant that uses reverse osmosis to turn salt water into potable water is expected to open in 2023 and will provide between five and 10 percent of Hong Kong’s fresh water, an incredibly small amount compared to what is needed. 

The hidden leakage

Researchers warn that the desalination plant is not enough. It is still "at risk of being an expensive project with little overall impact on Hong Kong’s long-term water security," wrote the authors of a 2017 research report on Hong Kong’s water security. Instead, they pointed to the much greater amount of fresh water that is lost on its way between the source and tap, and urged the water department to invest in the repair and maintenance of pipes. 

For over a decade, the cost of importing Dongjiang water has consumed over half of the city’s budget for water infrastructure, leaving little for maintenance and repairs. What was once considered a state-of-the-art water infrastructure, according to Lee, has now become a worn-out system with serious leakage issues. As a result, a third of freshwater is lost before it reaches consumers, mostly through leakages in pipes. 

Hong Kong’s water department is aware of this problem. Between 2000 and 2020 it launched an initiative to repair and replace public water pipes, lowering the leakage rate from 25 to 15 percent, which is still a high rate compared to other developed cities with leakage rates in the single digits. But progress has stagnated over the past couple of years and researchers complain that the department is not being ambitious enough. The water department did not respond to multiple requests for comments. 

As long as water comes out of the tap there is no sense of urgency among residents. A drought contingency plan, which is referred to in official documents, has never been released to the public or members of the legislative council. 

"The drought contingency plan is one of Hong Kong’s most closely guarded secrets," said Sam Inglis, a former environmental research analyst at ADMCF. "It is easier to get the nuclear contingency plan."

"People don’t think about supply chain issues until there is no broccoli on the shelves. It’s the same with water."

Image by Isaac Wong

Article written by:
Marie
Marie Bröckling
Author
Hong Kong
Picture showing a water pipe in Sheung Shui, Hong Kong.
© Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
Rising temperatures, pollution and extreme weather further threaten the main pillar of Hong Kong’s water supply.
© Tao Zhang/Getty Images
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