First steps towards a more sustainable water policy
According to WikiLeaks, one of the articles I wrote for this page got a mention in a cable from the US consulate in Hong Kong to Washington.
The article was published in October 2009, when, like today, Guangdong was suffering a severe drought. In view of the fact that Hong Kong had more than enough water stored to last until the following rainy season, I suggested that the Hong Kong government play the role of a good neighbour by asking the Guangdong authorities to temporarily stop their additional water supply to our city, which would probably just end up in the sea and wasted anyway.
According to the cable, the government heeded my advice but Guangdong declined the offer, on the grounds that Hong Kong consumed only an insignificant 3per cent on the demand equation.
Since then, the water supply agreement has been amended such that, with the lump sum charges unchanged, Guangdong will only supply Hong Kong the amount of water needed, so there will be no more unnecessary waste.
In another article on our water policy in July 2010, I also warned the SAR government that we can no longer rely on the constant supply of water from Guangdong. With a growing population, economic development and possibly the effects of climate change, Guangdong will soon face water supply problems, and will not be able to look after us forever.
This point was taken up by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen last year in his policy address, in which he disclosed that the government was negotiating with Guangdong on a new water pact to ensure 'a continuous, reliable and flexible supply of Dongjiang water to Hong Kong up to 2014'.
He also followed up on another suggestion I made in the article for the desalination of seawater, and declared that the government was 'conducting a detailed study and field surveys to assess the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of building a medium-sized desalination plant'. A site has been identified in Tseung Kwan O.
I have to congratulate myself for achieving so much in these articles. But it's worth noting that it took some time for the government to fully respond to such a pressing issue. That says a lot about its supposed efficiency. As for the people and our usually noisy pundits, even now no one seems to care. It is quite disheartening.
Now the question becomes: is seawater desalination the most urgent measure?
Of course, with all the red tape, we have to start now to achieve our objective of water security based on self-reliance after 2014.
On the other hand, the urgency has been somewhat reduced given that Guangdong's industry and population size has been reduced as a result of the 2008 global financial crisis, and water consumption is likely to have been correspondingly reduced.
Instead of building a desalination plant, it would be more cost-effective to promote the use of 'grey water', which is used water that has gone through secondary treatment. Grey water can be used for numerous activities in our daily life, like watering plants, cleaning roads and flushing toilets.
Because we are so close to the sea, most toilets in Hong Kong use seawater, but in a large part of the New Territories, precious fresh water is still used. If we amend building codes to require cheap secondary treatment facilities when building estates, a lot of fresh water can be saved for other uses.
Currently, we discharge into the sea the water that has gone through secondary treatment, but with some facility upgrading we should have no problem using it to water plants and clean the roads.
This would not require new legislation and large amounts of funding, and the general public probably wouldn't even notice the change or know the difference. The facilities are already there; all it takes is a bit of imagination and determination.
Lau Nai-keung is a member of the Basic Law Committee of the NPC Standing Committee, and also a member of the Commission on Strategic Development