An unedifying waste

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2001, 12:00am

While most of China wrestles with drought and water shortage, Guangdong wallows in an excess supply. Except that 'wallow' is the wrong word to use in a province where rivers are so polluted that users are plagued by skin complaints and stomach ailments.

Now the provincial Government plans to impose rationing to try to cut down the pollution. Residents waste millions of litres of water in farming and industrial use, with the residue pouring back into rivers to increase toxin levels. According to the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department, the SAR receives the cleanest water from the Dongjiang in Guangdong because it is treated in Shenzhen before being piped overland. That is a matter of dispute. Government river samples are clean; independent green groups' samples are not. Both may be accurate. It depends where samples are taken, as well as prevailing weather conditions. But it is an acknowledged fact that quality deteriorates yearly. Hong Kong as a major buyer has the right to demand immediate action to improve matters.

Ten million people live near the Dongjiang, using it as a liquid landfill for rubbish and raw sewage. There are 6,000 factories within 80km of it and its tributary Shi Ma river. Poisonous chemicals such as cyanide and mercury from factories discharge directly into the rivers or containment ponds nearby. Hong Kong may escape the worst hazards, but it still has to buy far more water than it needs. And despite investing $5 billion in a pipe to protect the supply at source before it flows among the sludge and the untreated sewage to Shenzhen, local taxpayers are now paying three times more for dirtier water than it cost in 1990.

It should be possible to renegotiate the agreement that locked Hong Kong into taking around 80 per cent of its supply from the mainland. All it needs is flexibility and common sense. Aside from the $2.37 billion for the 1999 supply, the city lent $2.36 billion to the province for sewage works projects. It would be edifying to know how the money was spent.

Local officials have been too complacent about the Guangdong water crisis. It is time for a tougher line than the one taken by a Water Supplies official who told a Post reporter last year: 'Rome wasn't built in a day'.

Even if SAR citizens are not directly affected, the water from mainland rivers flows into the Pearl River Delta, polluting the sea and harming the fish we eat. This issue should be top of the agenda when the cross-border co-operation committee next meets. Public health comes before ambitious plans for the development of Nansha. Pressing Guangdong for action, and to account for its spending, will help the population there just as much as Hong Kong.