The government lost HK$80.8 million in water charges due to inaccurate metering and another HK$79.2 million in illegal water consumption last year, the Director of Audit reported yesterday.
Water theft cost the Water Supplies Department 17.3 million cubic metres of water - almost 2 per cent of last year's total freshwater supply. Convictions increased 52 per cent, to 91 in 2010 from 60 in 2008.
Much of the illegal water use occurred at markets under the jurisdiction of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department. The number of convictions rose to 18, from four, in the three years ending last year.
In one case, a restaurant in a cooked food market was convicted three times in two years for illegal water use. But the Water Supplies Department, which runs such investigations, did not alert the food department, which operates the market.
That meant hygiene officials lost the chance to warn the shop owner about further offences. The department can stop renting a shop to anyone who receives three warnings within six months.
The director of audit urged the departments to improve communications to deter further water theft.
In other cases, water illegally acquired was used in manufacturing, construction, cleaning and irrigation work. A large amount went to flushing toilets, resulting in 48 convictions from 2008 to 2010. Charges recovered from water prosecutions amounted to HK$1.5 million.
In one case, the Water Supplies Department learned that fresh water was being directed from the freshwater tank to the flushing water tanks on the rooftops of four buildings in an estate. The management office was fined HK$11,200 and ordered to pay more than HK$50,000.
The Director of Audit recommended the government improve publicity campaigns to stop the unlawful use of fresh water for flushing.
Inaccurate measurements made by outdated water meters contributed to the government's failure to charge for 17.6 million cubic metres of water, or 2 per cent of the total freshwater supply.
The report cited one type of water meter used to measure domestic consumption, saying 2.8 million of them were in use. Yet 6 per cent of them had been used for longer than their optimal life of 12 years, the report said, and should be replaced.
A spokesman for the Water Supplies Department said a city-wide effort to replace old water meters had been under way since 2006. It had reduced the number of 15mm water meters that are over 12 years old to 160,000 in July this year from 680,000 in 2006, he said.
Meanwhile, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department accepted the audit's suggestions and is planning a better system of notification and communication with water officials about unlawful water use, a spokesman said.
Simon Wong Ka-wo, president of the Hong Kong Federation of Restaurants and Related Trades, said there were few water thieves in the industry since water charges. 'For a small restaurant, it would only save up to about HK$2,000 a month,' he said.