Split responsibility wastes our water

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2012, 12:00am


Everyone is fretting about the need to restructure the government. Here is my modest proposal, which targets only two low-level departments, rather than high-and-mighty policy bureaus. But I think it would have an immediate and positive impact, and make our city much more environmentally conscientious. So start the drum rolls: let's merge the Drainage Services and Water Supplies departments.

I may be naive but here's something I find faintly absurd and wasteful. Drainage officials spend billions of dollars building underground pipes and now a massive storm-water overflow tank under Happy Valley racecourse - equivalent to 24 Olympic swimming pools! - to avoid flooding. Meanwhile, Water Supplies tells us Hong Kong doesn't receive enough natural rainfall and so we must spend billions every year on buying water from the Dongjiang in Guangdong, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The money does not include the heavy cost of monitoring and treatment required to handle water from such a suspect source.

I don't doubt water officials when they say we don't receive enough rainfall, but this does not mean we should not try to use it.

The world, including much of the mainland, is facing a water crisis but supply has remained cheap and plentiful in Hong Kong. It will not remain so indefinitely. We just had a wake-up call from a new three-year contract signed with Guangdong under which water provision will be reduced by 25 per cent.

We need to be more self-reliant, and that means better co-ordination, not only in terms of joint projects but at policy level, between the two departments. We not only need to build better systems to trap rainwater, but also to conserve water and curb our wasteful habits. There is also a wealth of underground fresh water hitherto ignored by everyone except local geologists and earth scientists.

We need to look at the whole picture of supply and drainage. Many countries have just one department overseeing both concerns. So it looks purely like a colonial anachronism to have a system where the responsibility is split.