Hong Kong is leakier than everyone thinks

In spite of being of the most prosperous city in the world, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China is leaky. The metropolis’ yearly loss of water from both theft and leakage is a hefty 32.5 per cent of total production, or 321 million cbm – a full one third of the city’s water.

The water loss is avoidable, though addressing the problem will certainly take more than just plugging up a few leaky pipes here and there. For instance, Tokyo, in Japan, managed to lower the rate of its freshwater leakage from 20 per cent in 1955 to less than two per cent today. Even cities not as wealthy as Hong Kong have managed their water leaks better; Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, brought down its water loss from a whopping 60 per cent in 1998 to just approximately six per cent in 2008.

Currently, the water leakage in Hong Kong is costing it an estimated HKD 1.35 billion (US$173 million) per year. As a direct consequence, the Water Supplies Department (WSD), which oversees water supply and sanitation in the city, is thought to have lost around HKD 17 billion (US$2.1 billion) from 2004 to 2015.

“There is an illusion that Hong Kong has an infinite source of fresh water supply,” Evan Auyang, chairman of Civic Exchange, an environmental think-tank, said to China Dialogue during an interview. Civic Exchange has published a report on Hong Kong’s extensive water issues titled “The Illusion of Plenty”. He has placed the blame squarely on gaps in water agreements, low water tariffs, and poor implementation of water conservation rules and regulations.

Image credit: Civic Exchange


Plugging leaks
Authorities in Hong Kong have been making efforts to address Hong Kong’s massive water issues for a long time. According to the report from Civic Exchange, the total loss of water in the city stood at 26.5 per cent in 2010, with losses from the government’s main supply pipeline responsible for 20 per cent of the total production alone. Other contributing factors to the loss include poorly maintained pipelines on private property, inaccurate metering, and illegal extraction – essentially, water theft.

In an attempt to resolve the issue, the WSD initiated a programme in 2010 to repair and plug the metropolis’ pipes, and aiming to bring down water loss from 20 per cent to 15 per cent. It was successful, with 91 per cent of the leakages in the main water network fixed.

But in 2015, just half a decade later, the loss of fresh water actually grew from the original 26.5 per cent to 33 per cent.


Heavy water usage
Every year, Hong Kong goes through 1.25 billion cbm of water. This figure includes 820 million cbm of freshwater, and the remainder coming from seawater. The average amount of water consumed per capita in the busy metropolis is 224 litres, with freshwater making up 132 litres and seawater, 92 litres.

Already, the amount of freshwater consumption on average per capita in Hong Kong is 21 per cent higher than the global average. But when seawater consumption is included – Hong Kong is one of the few nations in the world that use seawater to flush their toilets – water consumption doubles to twice that of the global average per capital of water consumption at 110 litres.

Other cities in the region with similar water issues as Hong Kong consume a less amount as well. For example, Singapore has lowered consumption per capita from 170 litres daily to 151 litres in 2015. Shanghai has managed to bring it further down to 106 litres a day. By comparison, Hong Kong’s tatal water consumption has increased by a quarter – or 25 per cent – since 1998.


The water agreements
As Hong Kong prospered in the 1960s, its water scarcity issues increased in conjunction. In a bid to address the problem, the nation came to an agreement with China’s mainland government in 1965.

The DongShen Agreement – still in place – gave rise to the Dongjiang-Shenzen Water Supply Project, and imports the needed water into Hong Kong from the Dong Jiang River in Guangdong.

To further streamline the water supply from Guangdong, the RMB 4.7 billion (US$680 million) DongShen Renovation Project took place in 1998, with Hong Kong contributing HKD 2.36 billion (US$303 million), nearly half the total cost.

Today, Guangdong is behind 65 to 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s total freshwater supply, with the remaining amounts provided by local resources.

“Such a massive investment speaks to Hong Kong’s massive reliance on Guangdong,” Even stated.

A year after the DongShen Renovation Project, Hong Kong’s Audit Commission proved that the city had to take in a full allocation of water no matter how much they used. Of the entire 1.1 billion cbm Guangdong allocated to them, the city would usually consume no more than 820 million cbm.

However, when Hong Kong asked Guangdong to alter the deal in 2014 so that the payment made to them would only cover the actual amount of water used, the authorities in Guangdong pointed out that the existing deal guaranteed Hong Kong at least 99 per cent of their allocation, and a change in the agreement may result in that loss, with the water from the Dongjiang water allocated somewhere else.


Possible solutions
Addressing Hong Kong’s rampant water issues will take much more than repairing a few pipes.

The WSD’s structure is such that numerous city departments must first get involved before even simple repairs can be done on the city’s pipes. Additionally, the metropolis’ development bureau is currently installing smart metres to detect water leakages as well as improve the accuracy of water metering. But with shoddy service and inadequate inspections rounds from the WSD along with aging water infrastructure and private housing – around 326,000 private will be over 70 years of age by 2047 – the city is facing an uphill battle.

According to environment research analyst and Civic Exchange report researcher Sam Inglis, the issues cannot be tackled with a single approach; instead, a multi-pronged approach would be necessary to lower water loss and consumption.

“One of the best approaches would be to shift from a complete engineering-based approach for water conservation to social awareness and a hike in the water tariff,” he said. Hong Kong’s water tariffs have not come under revision since 1995, twenty years ago.

Evan also stated that the metropolis must also begin looking at other sustainable sources as water, especially as climate change threatens the river flow in China’s Pearl River catchment, reducing the annual flow of water into the Dong Jiang Rover.

Even proposed a system where the city recycles their water for reuse. “We suggest that a circular water management system should be adopted,” he said.


Sources: Eco-Business, China Dialogue, Civic Exchange