Hong Kong’s heatwave should raise alarm bells about what could come next: water shortages
Alice Wu says two weeks of record hot weather have brought back memories of the city’s 1963 drought and tight water rationing. It’s time to heed warnings that climate change and our wasteful water-use habits are a crisis in the making
The record-breaking heatwave that left Hong Kong scorching hot for 15 days straight — the hottest May since records began — was enough to send former Hong Kong Observatory chief Lam Chiu-ying back 55 years.
In a blog post last week, Lam recalled the severe drought in May 1963 that required strict water rationing for all residents, with the taps running for only four hours every four days. Rationing actually continued into the 1970s, ceasing only in May 1982. Almost two decades of worrying about water is not something many Hongkongers today can relate to or even imagine.
Yet water security is important. It took something as drastic as temperatures reaching 38.6 degrees Celsius, as happened last Tuesday, to get our attention. To date, this year’s rainfall total has been the second-lowest level recorded for Hong Kong, the Observatory said. For April and May, no water level could be recorded for Lau Shui Heung Reservoir because it had completely dried up.
Hong Kong's Lau Shui Heung Reservoir dries up:
Last year, local think tank Civic Exchange published a report, The Illusion of Plenty , that called attention to the threat of a water crisis in Hong Kong. It called on the government to review the city’s long-term water strategy and for Hongkongers to change our wasteful habits. It raised important issues like our dependence on mainland China’s Dongjiang and our failure to rein in our water consumption, which is about 21 per cent higher than the global average.
Unfortunately, no one was in the mood to listen.
Chiu used the current heatwave to sound the alarm, appealing to us to not take rainfall or Dongjiang water for granted. Any drought that hit southern China would leave all major cities high and dry, he warned. If that happened, cities “might have to fight for water to drink”. That’s not at all far-fetched, considering the increasingly unpredictable weather due to climate change and the massive national push for development under the Greater Bay Area initiative.
Both climate change and industrial development are factors that will exacerbate water scarcity on a global scale. The UN has warned that the world faces a supply shortfall of 40 per cent by 2030, which would be a major threat to global security.
As obsessed as this city is with global rankings, we seem to care very little for the fact that a 2016 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study of 48 major international cities found Hong Kong to be one of the highest per capita water users globally. Water scarcity is a global issue. For Hong Kong to ignore its responsibility as a member of the global community and continue with its profligate ways is shameful.
Consider the very harsh conditions residents of drought-stricken Cape Town have been facing. The severe drought that began in 2015 has crippled the city. By February of this year, residents were limited to just 50 litres of water per day and worrying about “Day Zero” – the day when critically low levels of fresh water might be cut off for good. The dreaded day has been put off for now, but the lessons remain for Hong Kong.
Many have said that water disputes could start small, but would escalate into major conflict; some even predict water scarcity could be the source of future wars. If hot weather can drive the MTR Corporation chief to make enraging public comments, imagine what hot weather plus harsh water rationing can do.
Think global, act local: we must start tackling our water wastage problem now – and this means more than changing our habit of keeping taps running and washing just half a load of laundry. We should examine all our consumption habits that pollute and harm the environment, such as how much we feed the fast-fashion industry.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA