Hong Kong: Water insecurity reflects political woes

This year, the year 2017, has been a big one for Hong Kong. On the 1st of July, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) marked the twentieth year of the city’s handover to China from Britain, sparking pro-democracy protests amid some celebration.

But despite rampant unhappiness rising ever higher among locals over the two decades of Chinese rule, they are unable to deny Hong Kong’s dependence on the mainland for necessities much like food and water, or investment and trade.

As the SAR does not have any natural water sources such as lakes, rivers, or subterranean groundwater to call its own, a particular point of concern to the metropolis is the heavy reliance on China for water.

Currently, their water comes from the Dongjian River, the result of the Dongjian Water Supply Agreement struck in 1965, bringing water from Guangdong to Hong Kong.

But the agreement that gives Hong Kong more than 70 per cent of its water is the very same one that has become a representation of the city’s resistance to China.

After all, the deal is set to expire by the end of the year, and needs to be renewed. But over the years, Hong Kong’s resentment of the agreement has only grown.

But should they attain independence from the mainland, they would need to learn how to swim, figuratively, as Hong Kong’s reliance on China for water is one of the main factors against its independence. And while it would be unlikely and inadvisable for China to cut ties with Hong Kong, water is still one of the methods in which the mainland can exert their control over the bustling metropolis.

Since 2006, Hong Kong has paid Guangdong HK$4.5 billion (US$58 million) for unconsumed water under the agreement, part of the “lump sum package deal”, where the city pays a sum for a fixed supply. Furthermore, the price of water imported from Guangdong has doubled over the last ten years, a consequence of rising competition for limited water in the reservoir. In Guangdong, population growth in cities near the Pearl River Delta have led to a 30 per cent depletion of water supplies in the Dongjiang River Basin over the same ten years.

To further worsen the issue, water tariffs in Hong Kong have not been revised since 1995, and now still follow the Increasing Block Tariffs (IBTs), where the first block of water used is subsidised by the government. In other words, taxpayers finance half the water consumed by households.

But these low water tariffs have translated into Hong Kong’s citizens being ranked as one of the highest water consumers in the world, with water consumption even going as high as 21 per cent over the global average in 2015. In addition, a whopping 32.5 per cent (321 million m³) of water is lost to leaky pipes and water theft.

All this, added to the fact that Hong Kong has not developed other water sources to keep up with its population booms have resulted in the city’s dependence on China. In fact, water imported to Hong Kong has increased from 22 per cent in 1965 to 76 per cent in 2012.

If the city does want to lower its reliance on China, water technology has to be one of the most vital aspects of their strategy. They would also have to revise their water tariffs to ensure they reflect the rising cost of imported water.

Efforts in reusing, recycling, and desalinating water should also be improved, and research collaborations would be a great help.

But at the bottom of it all, Hong Kong is a city caught in a serious dilemma resource and politically wise. For if they do go through with pro-democracy plans, they need to learn how to figuratively swim in water they need.


Source: Shanisse Goh, Eco-Business