What Hong Kong can do to fix its water management policy
Evan Auyang says Hong Kong has much to rethink in water governance, from reformulating its water tariff scheme to tracking usage more effectively
This year is shaping up to be one of the hottest ever, with new temperature records in many countries and extreme weather events on the rise. Hong Kong is no exception. With a record-breaking heatwave in May suggesting that the number of extremely hot days is increasing by the year, public concern about water security in the city and the impact of climate change has been intensifying. Up to August 13, Hong Kong had recorded some 1,100mm of rainfall this year, 544.5mm or more than 30 per cent less than the normal average recorded for the period.
It is therefore high time to examine the city’s water management policy and make water conservation a priority. This is a topic that Civic Exchange and ADM Capital Foundation first raised in a report, The Illusion of Plenty, published in May last year.
Hong Kong receives 80 per cent of its freshwater from the Dongjiang, or East River, which is also a lifeline to other Pearl River Delta cities such as Guangzhou and Shenzhen. After decades of industrialisation and urbanisation in the Pearl River Delta, the Dongjiang now serves more than 40 million people, including 7.4 million in Hong Kong, putting a strain on the river as the main water supply for the whole region.
Hong Kong may enjoy abundant access to water today, but local freshwater resources are limited. In fact, much attention has been focused on the fact that Hong Kong paid HK$4.2 billion (US$535 million) to Guangdong for water in 2015, almost doubling the cost in 2001.
Over the next three years, Hong Kong is expected to pay more than HK$14.4 billion to Guangdong under the new “DongShen Agreement”, which stipulates that the unit price of Dongjiang water will rise by 0.3 per cent a year, according to documents submitted by the Development Bureau to the legislature.
Despite this growing expense, Hong Kong’s government-subsidised domestic water tariffs – the prices all users pay each month – have not changed since 1995. The city’s water charges are among the lowest in the developed world, especially compared to New York, London, Tokyo, and even Beijing.
The uncommonly low water charges give Hong Kong users little incentive to moderate their consumption, which has risen sharply since 1990. Protected from rising costs, the average local consumer is largely unaware of water scarcity and conservation concerns: Hong Kong’s domestic water consumption per person per day is 21 per cent higher than the global average.
Another factor that significantly increases consumption is chronic leakages in the city’s water distribution network. An estimated one-third of Hong Kong’s freshwater is lost through leaky government mains, private pipes, and even theft. The loss is roughly the same as the volume of the local catchment and cost HK$1.35 billion in revenue in 2013.
The rate of overall water losses in Hong Kong increased to 33 per cent in 2015 from 26.5 per cent in 2010. This is considerably higher than in other developed cities: Tokyo successfully reduced its leakage rate to 2.7 per cent by 2010, from 20 per cent in 1955.
Although leaks from Hong Kong’s government water mains had decreased to 15 per cent in 2015 from 20 per cent in 2010, water losses from private pipes have surged sixfold, to 14 per cent, over the same period. That means even if the Water Supplies Department manages to achieve its goal of lowering the government mains leakage rate to below 10 per cent by 2030, much still needs to be done to resolve this issue.
One of the greatest barriers to tackling overconsumption is the opacity of water usage figures. The Development Bureau does not have metered water consumption statistics sorted by district. Companies that do not fall under the Hong Kong stock exchange’s disclosure rules can avoid sharing their usage figures. The government should introduce a policy that makes such data publicly available to help identify the heaviest users.
To ensure an abundant supply of water in the years to come, Hong Kong needs a comprehensive policy to strengthen its water management. This will enable the city to cope with rapid urban and environmental changes, much like its counterparts in the Pearl River Delta, as China also struggles with water scarcity. Measures that can be explored include:
- Establishing a source-to-tap policy to ensure water is delivered effectively to end users – not unlike what Singapore and Britain have done.
- Accelerating pipe repair in public and private systems to reduce water waste.
- Reformulating Hong Kong’s water tariff scheme with a greater focus on conservation and adopting punitive measures against excessive users while protecting financially disadvantaged households.
- Practising greater data transparency and improving measurement to increase accountability.
- Exploring incentive systems to accelerate adoption of water-efficient appliances at both domestic and commercial levels.
Incorporating equity, sustainability and accountability into our water governance is the only way to go. Freshwater makes up only about 2 per cent of the world’s water and Hong Kong must do more to protect this scarce resource, especially when the world braces itself for future uncertainties brought on by climate change.
Evan Auyang is board chairman of Civic Exchange