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Hongkongers should cut their water consumption, experts say

The amount of drinking water from Guangdong is likely to be reduced in the near future. Activists say that Hongkongers should start efforts to cut consumption now, writes Bernice Chan


It's hard for Hong Kong residents to imagine having to queue for our household supply of water every few days simply because there isn't enough to go round.

But that was the life in the city for an entire year when southern China was hit by severe drought between 1963 and 1964. It was the worst period in Hong Kong's water history, when the taps were turned on for just four hours every four days.

But the water crisis also made for creative conservation efforts.

"I remember, every morning, I used water in a plastic container to wash my face and then that water was used to wash vegetables before using it to flush the toilet," Frederick Lee Yok-shiu, an associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong, says of his experience with water rationing, which continued into the early 1970s.

Those days have long gone thanks to the steady supply of water piped in from the Dongjiang, a river in Guangdong province, which supplies 70 to 80 per cent of Hong Kong's requirements.

But the river's waters are shared by some 40 million people in the eastern Pearl River Delta region. As communities north of Lo Wu grow thirstier, the increased demand will inevitably affect Hong Kong's supply from the Dongjiang - even we are paying for it.

That's why a number of non-governmental organisations, green groups and experts such as Lee are calling on the Hong Kong government and the public to do more to conserve water - and they say efforts must start now.

Last month think tank Civic Exchange hosted a seminar on the issue, where it also released an extensive report titled .

Its author, Su Liu, head of greater China and water policy research at Civic Exchange, presented the bald facts: each person in Hong Kong now consumes on average of 220 litres of water every day. That is 30 per cent more than the global per capita figure of 170 litres. Much of the 90 litres used for flushing comes from the sea.

But a Water Supplies Department survey this year found that, of the 125 litres of fresh water each person uses, about 43 per cent is taken up by showers or baths, 47 per cent flows out of household taps, and 9 per cent in washing machines.

We might conclude from this data that Hongkongers like to take long showers (a Green Power survey in March found that the average time spent was 14 minutes) and go to the toilet frequently. But most people have little idea how much water 220 litres means, Lee says.

Holding up a standard 500-millilitre plastic bottle of drinking water, he shows what that all adds up to - each person uses the equivalent of 440 bottles of water each day.

Yet the charge for potable water in Hong Kong is one of the world's cheapest. Comparing rates in several international cities, Lee found that Hong Kong pays US$34 for every 100 cubic metres (1,000 litres), far less than Paris (US$159), Tokyo (US$194), Sydney (US$277), New York City (US$238) and Geneva (US$400).

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Lee has found that the wealthier a city is in terms of GDP, the higher its water tariff is. Not so in Hong Kong. Each resident pays the equivalent of a cup of coffee for the 220 litres that they use daily, Lee says.

That's a mere fraction of the cost of producing clean, potable water. That total is now estimated at HK$760 per 1,000 litres. This covers the purchasing of Dongjiang water, treatment, pumping it into homes, and cost of running the bureaucracy. Yet tariffs have not changed since 1995. As a result, in the decade between 2002 and 2012 taxpayers have coughed up HK$41.7 billion to subsidise production of potable water.

The first 12 cubic metres of water is supplied free of charge to every household every quarter - a way to help low-income families. The amount is based on the estimated minimum that a household would need to cook and do basic washing, Lee explains, and is provided across the board because trying to differentiate by household size and income would be too difficult.

But water parity advocates such as Lee argue that industries and businesses should be paying far higher rates to reflect the highly subsidised cost of production. For example, bottled water companies buy clean tap water for HK$4.58 per cubic metre. But this drinkable water is resold - albeit after some treatment - to consumers for about HK$7,800 per cubic metre - more than 1,000 times the cost of the "raw" material.

The government's water strategy in the past few decades has largely been to rely on a steady supply from Guangdong. But researchers such as Liu and Debra Tan, director of consultancy China Water Risk, say that it is short-sighted. Although some observers believe Beijing will ensure the pipes from Dongjing keep pumping, they argue that it is only a matter of time before Guangdong authorities are forced to reduce our supply.

"Guangdong has to lower its water consumption from 46.96 billion cubic metres to 45.8 billion cubic metres by 2015, a 2.3 per cent decrease for the whole province," Tan says. "It also needs to grow its economy, which means it needs more water. It is going to have to do this by saving [1.1 billion cubic metres of] water."

That is one reason why water conservation is a vital component of environmental protection and resource management policy in China's latest Five-Year Plan. "The 2011 document pushes industry and agriculture to save water, so Hong Kong should do the same. Why should we be so privileged?" Tan asks.

Compared with Guangdong, where there is a lot of agriculture and manufacturing, she says consumption in Hong Kong, where such activity is negligible, is "ridiculously high".

Tan suggests gratuitous water consumption in Hong Kong may be due partly to a mindset of using the resource, since it has been paid for. Usage patterns seem to support this notion: annual fresh water consumption rose from 49 cubic metres per capita in 1986 to 64 cubic metres in 1996, and 74.8 cubic metres in 2006.

Tan believes Hong Kong must be more proactive in saving water, before conservation is thrust upon us. The latest water supply agreement with Guangdong, signed in 2011, is up for renewal next year.

Says Tan: "We can't wait for Guangdong to reduce the water supply. We should all reduce our water consumption accordingly. We need to look forward 10 years and prepare for that day. These things don't suddenly appear."

Water is one of the top five aspects of risk in a community that governments cannot afford to compromise. "The risk is so large, like terrorism, that you do your best to avoid it. In reality the risk of terrorism is low, but you still spend on security. What's the likelihood of Guangdong cutting our water supply? But in the meantime we should be cutting down our water use, so how do we work to mitigate that? We should be working towards the probability of zero [risk]."

To achieve this, the government has to take the lead by adopting a multipronged approach, Lee argues.

It should pass legislation to require new buildings to include water-saving features such as low-flow shower heads and toilets, engineering systems to collect and reuse grey water (waste water from bathing and laundry that can be easily recycled for flushing or irrigating parks and gardens). "The government has ... to set a standard so the entire community has to comply," Lee says.

"It's not effective to simply run public campaigns about taking shorter showers and using less water, because there is a limit to how much water individuals can save. Even if you try to get people to save water by take shorter showers from, say five minutes to three ... there is a limit to bringing substantial change," says Lee. "You may not even convince 10 per cent of the population to change. Unless something has a critical impact on your wellbeing and health, habits are not going to change."

Lee argues the government should at least aim to recover the full cost of water by making industries pay higher charges.

Once people start paying more, they will not need to be told how to conserve water, he argues. "In most households, it is the woman who controls the family budget. She can play a critical role in affecting the behaviour of her husband and children. When she finds the water bills are going up, she will tell her family to use less water."

Hong Kong people are largely unaware of how much water they are using, and how much they pay for it.

"You cannot accuse them of [excessive] water use when they don't know how much a litre of water is," says Lee. "Also they cannot control how much water they use [in the way they control] air time on mobile phones, which they can track."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Stem the flow