Hong Kong must focus on saving water, to help save lives
Mayling Chan says we must stop taking our supply for granted because worldwide, climate change and energy demands mean freshwater will become even more scarce
Water, water everywhere. That's the feeling we Hong Kong people have always had, not only because we're an island city, but also thanks to the 17 reservoirs that dot our territory. Our taps, it seems, can never run dry.
And to keep them running, Financial Secretary John Tsang Tsun-wah said during his recent budget speech, a plant that desalinates seawater would be up and running by 2020 to meet our ever-growing demand for water.
But the government is barking up the wrong tree. The question we should all be asking is not how we can take the salt out of seawater, but how we can stop using so much of our freshwater resources.
Judging by the way we let it run down the drain, saving water is not a big concern for most Hongkongers. Our annual per capita water consumption, at 172 cubic metres, is high compared to other developed cities like London, Melbourne and Paris, which use 80, 86 and 119 cubic metres respectively, according to research by China Water Risk, a non-profit organisation that highlights water issues. This shows that our society has a low awareness of water conservation.
Yet for people living in many countries, water is not a given. The United Nations has estimated that 768 million people are still without access to improved drinking-water sources - that is, water protected from contamination - while 2.5 billion people still lack "improved sanitation", or hygienic housing.
East Africa suffered a severe drought in 2011 and 2012, one said to be the worst in 60 years. It caused a widespread food crisis that affected 10 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. Water shortages were one of the major drivers of food insecurity in the region.
Oxfam figures show that over 70 per cent of agriculture worldwide is rain-fed, and hence at the mercy of changing rainfall patterns and intensities. In order to increase the ability of communities to withstand erratic weather patterns that vacillate between heavy showers and severe dry periods, Oxfam has provided support for building more water collection points, for use by people and livestock. It has also assisted villagers in diversifying the crops they produce, the fodder they use and, most importantly, their sources of livelihood.
The issue of inequality comes into play as well. The UN has estimated in a report, to be released on World Water Day today, that water, sanitation and wastewater treatment will cost developing countries US$103 billion from now through to 2015, which is no small sum. Many countries simply cannot afford these essential services, meaning numerous families in impoverished urban and rural areas must survive without safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.
These figures and distant situations might be hard for Hongkongers to digest, but we don't need to look all the way to East Africa to see why we need to conserve water.
We may be a watery planet, but less than 1 per cent of our freshwater is available for drinking, farming and our myriad other needs. Sure, water can be recycled, but it takes a lot of energy to clean and transport it. So, the more water we waste, the less there is available for other people, and the more energy we use.
This last point - the link between water and energy - is key, and that's why it's the headline topic of this year's World Water Day. About 8 per cent of the energy we generate worldwide goes into pumping, treating and transporting water to consumers.
As we have seen in the Oxfam projects we mentioned, how much water we have is not the only thing we should be concerned about. What is also important is how stable this supply is.
Climate change has made our supply more unstable: with the atmosphere able to hold more water, rainfall has become heavier. This, in turn, has increased the speed with which freshwater returns to sea, and decreased the time we have to collect and use it. Climate change has also meant that places that were water-scarce to begin with now have even less moisture.
For farmers whose crops depend on a delicate balance between dryness and moisture, extreme rains and droughts can be disastrous.
A leaked report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that rising temperatures may result in the global yield for various staple crops decreasing by up to 2 per cent per decade. All aspects of food security can potentially be affected by climate change, including access to food, the way people use it, their ability to absorb nutrients, and prices.
Price increases for major food items will without doubt hurt the 1.3 million people who live below the official poverty line in Hong Kong. For those on the minimum wage, this is an alarming prospect. With food prices and rents rising but their incomes remaining static, it won't be long before they cannot afford to eat. The parents of the 284,099 children and young people living in poverty will have to face an even greater burden in feeding them.
Water conservation requires public education. The Water Supplies Department has done well in setting up the Water Resources Education Centre on Sai Yee Street in busy Mong Kok. Students and members of community centres and non-governmental organisations can learn a lot there.
When I visited recently, a guide told me that schoolchildren had suggested putting a brick in the toilet water tank to save flushing water. It is not a bad idea. The government could improve this education centre to make it more interactive.
Water scarcity does not have to be a problem, but rather, it can be part of the solution. With a little commitment from all of us, it can become a driver for positive change in water conservation.
Mayling Chan is international programme director at Oxfam Hong Kong