Hong Kong needs a fresh policy on water before the taps run dry

Cheap prices mean we have long ducked the tough questions on how to reduce reliance on imported supplies, but Singapore offers a model

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 12:15am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 8:41am

This year the Hong Kong government will renegotiate the agreement under which the city gets 80 per cent of its fresh water from the Dongjiang, or East River, in Guangdong province.

No doubt the price will rise a touch from the modest HK$4.80 a tonne that Guangdong currently asks. But few people in Hong Kong will either know or care. The increase will not be reflected in our water bills.

That's because Hong Kong's water system is heavily subsidised by the government. Although the city pays HK$4.80 to buy a tonne of Dongjiang water, and another HK$3.60 to make it drinkable, we typically pay just HK$4.16 a tonne to consume it.

What's more, our first 36 tonnes a year come free, and we pay nothing for the salt water supply we use to flush our lavatories and nothing for our sewerage.

As a result, Hong Kong's water bills are among the lowest in the developed world. New Yorkers, for example, are charged seven times as much for their water supplies.

Not surprisingly, given how little we pay, Hongkongers are profligate users of water, consuming 220 litres a day each; twice as much as the inhabitants of either Brussels or Barcelona.

New Yorkers, for example, are charged seven times as much for their water supplies

Unfortunately, we will not be able to go on splashing out like this. Our taps will go on running for now, but in the long term we cannot expect our supply of Dongjiang water to continue to flow unimpeded.

With the river also the main water supply for Shenzhen, Dongguan and parts of Guangzhou, the volumes being extracted from the river have reached unsustainable levels.

Hong Kong needs to ask itself whether in future the Guangdong government is likely to impose strict water rationing on mainland households and industries in order to maintain its generous supplies to Hong Kong, and whether we would want that anyway.

Clearly Hong Kong needs to act now to reduce our future reliance on imported water.

There are several ways we can do that. We could introduce a cost-related pricing to reduce waste. We could cut the monstrous amount of water we lose to leakage, from around 20 per cent of all piped water to no more than 5 per cent. We could collect more of our rainfall, most of which is channelled by the Drainage Services Department straight out to sea. We could recycle waste water, and if necessary we could even build desalination plants to take the salt out of sea water.

But no joined-up thinking is likely given the government's current fragmented approach to water policy. At the moment, there are almost a dozen different government bureaus and departments responsible for water management, including the Water Supplies Department, the Drainage Services Department, the Buildings Department, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and the Environmental Bureau.

A new report by Liu Su and Jessica Williams at the think tank Civic Exchange contrasts Hong Kong's water policy, or lack of it, unfavourably to the approach taken in Singapore, where everything to do with water is the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources.

At independence 50 years ago, Singapore relied on imports for its entire water supply. In recent years, however, the government has introduced incentives to cut consumption while investing in new sources of supply, recovering two thirds of the island republic's rainfall, recycling waste water and building desalination plants.

As a result, Singapore today relies on imports for just 40 per cent of its water needs. In another 50 years, it expects to be self-sufficient.

Hong Kong should emulate that approach, bringing everything water-related under a single agency, and formulating a long-term policy to ensure the security and reliability of the city's water supply.

And we should do it before our taps run dry.