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The Lok On Pai desalination plant on Castle Peak Road, in 1988, several years after it was shut down. Photo: SCMP

Hong Kong built a desalination plant to combat a water shortage – but water from China was cheaper

  • After drought caused a water crisis in 1963, the colony made plans for a desalination plant
  • It started producing fresh water in 1975 but was shut down after critics blasted its high operating costs

In 1963, Hong Kong was gripped by a water shortage. “The dry winter season has already arrived yet only 31.47 inches of rain fell from the beginning of May to the end of September, against an average of 67.53 inches for this period,” reported the South China Morning Post on October 7 of that year. A fleet of tankers was chartered “for the Pearl River water run” to maintain the “once-in-four-days water supply”, but a long-term solution was necessary “to avoid a recur­rence of this year’s crisis even in the event of a drought of the same severity”.

Plans for two desalination plants were announced the next year but remained on the drawing board. “Hongkong, while short of water, is also short of the £650,000 it needs to process the sea into potable liquid,” Ronald Miller, chairman of British engineering firm Motherwell Bridge told the Post in 1966.

On March 29, 1971, the paper reported that an experimental desalting plant, which produced 50,000 gallons of fresh water a day, was “now operating” at Castle Peak, but did not meet the needs of the colony, at the time still dependent on rainfall for its water.

“Hong Kong will have the biggest desalting plant in the world when the now expanded desalination project is completed in 1975 at a cost of $450 million,” reported the Post on January 22, 1972.

“The world’s largest desalting plant, at Lok On Pai, Castle Peak, is now producing water on a trial basis,” reported the Post on April 11, 1975. “The first of six units is pumping out, at full capacity, 6,666,000 gallons a day, which is going into the Tai Lam Chung reservoir.”

The desalter was officially opened on October 15, 1975, by governor Murray MacLehose, who said he was “delighted” with the plant. His view was not shared, however, and it was shut down in 1982. “Critics have long dubbed the contro­versial desalter a white elephant,” reported the Post on May 18 of that year. “Critics blasted the high cost of running the plant, claiming water from China was much cheaper.”