Why you should care
There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or free water, for that matter — even in one of the world’s wealthiest cities.
If Hong Kong and water had a relationship status on Facebook, it would be “It’s complicated.”
On the one hand, Hong Kong has been progressive and forward-thinking with water — it was the first city in the world to use seawater for toilet-flushing and one of the earliest adopters of seawater desalination. On the other hand, water experts are now sounding the alarm that Hong Kong is at great risk of running very low on water in the future. Hong Kong’s reliance on imported water leaves it vulnerable: 70% to 80% of the city’s water comes from the Dongjiang river in the Guangdong province of China. And that early desalination plant? It was dismantled in 1992.
Each resident consumes about 220 liters of water per day — at a cost equal to that of a cup of coffee.
The Dongjiang is quite the popular kid on the block — five major cities surrounding it also rely on it for their water, and in 2010 those cities approached or exceeded their allotments. A Civic Exchange report on Hong Kong’s water management system says this foreshadows “a future in which demand will exceed supply” and an increase in competition for water among the cities. HK is not an isolated instance. Water shortages are a rising source of conflict between cities in Brazil, Ethiopia, Jordan, India and the United States. Hong Kong is a harbinger of how other modern cities will find themselves struggling to meet water demands.
This year, the Hong Kong government is renegotiating their water allocation agreement, and prices are expected to rise. Also rising? The city’s population. Hong Kong’s population is predicted to increase by about 1.5 million people by 2041, reaching 8.5 million. There’s also population growth expected in the cities sharing the Dongjiang’s water, and the reality of climate change adds to the pressures facing Hong Kong’s water management.
In 1984, Su Liu says the British government found Hong Kong “indefensible” largely because HK relied on China for its freshwater and also had 99% of its local water reservoir on the leased lands of the New Territories.
The people of Hong Kong love using water. China Water Risk reports the city uses more water per capita than Paris, London, Singapore and Melbourne. Part of the reason there is so much water consumption in the city may be the pricing structure. Each resident consumes about 220 liters per day, at a cost equal to that of a cup of coffee, reveals Frederick Lee Yok-shiu, an associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, freshwater is heavily subsidized by the government, and the seawater used for flushing is free. The city’s water prices have been frozen since 1995, which means that although the price the government pays (and therefore what taxpayers pay) can rise, residents won’t notice a cost increase tied to their personal usage. To put it into context, New Yorkers pay seven times more than Hong Kongers for their water use.
Would restructuring the way Hong Kong residents pay for their water be of any help? Yes. But Su Liu, head of Greater China and water policy research at Civic Exchange, a think tank, says it is “misleading” to say that “price is the only way to keep the usage down.” She says a multipronged government approach is needed to solve Hong Kong’s water problem, and multiple water experts agree.
A strict rationing system allowed residents water for only four hours every four days for an entire year.
This includes not only adjusting the price structure but also looking into other solutions like recycling wastewater, cutting down on water lost from piped water leakage, collecting more rainfall and investing in seawater desalination again. Liu says that the city’s current water-gathering system is doing very well, except that most of the rainfall is routed straight to the ocean by the Drainage Services Department. Perhaps that rainfall could be used in a way that lessens the dependency on imported water.
Currently, there are almost a dozen government departments dealing with Hong Kong’s water management. This fragmentation makes it more difficult for holistic water legislation to be created and implemented.
The government must “set a standard so the entire community has to comply,” Lee tells the South China Morning Post.
Hong Kong is no stranger to water rationing. In 1963, a drought in the area dried out reservoirs, and the government had to impose a strict rationing system, which allowed residents water for only four hours every four days for an entire year. During that same time period, Singapore underwent a strict water rationing, as well. But while Hong Kong becomes increasingly dependent on imported water, Singapore expects to be entirely water self-sufficient by 2060, and is touted as a role model for all cities struggling with water shortages.
“Water plays a very important role in Hong Kong’s future,” says Liu, adding that as long as the city is dependent on outside sources, those outside sources can use the water to “keep us in check.” She adds, “Water has been very political; it’s not just a commodity.”
The lesson she thinks Hong Kong can teach the world? “Water is justice. It is self-reliance. It is sustainability. All of those values are much more important than whether you can pay for 10 or 20 liters. A commodity comes at a price. Whoever can bid for the higher price can just take it and control it.”