Hong Kong's tainted water scare

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing pocketed HK$40 million as sole supplier of bottled water at height of city's lead-in-pipes scandal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 12:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 10:35am

More bottled water has been handed out to deal with Hong Kong's lead-in-pipes scandal than the entire 7.3 million population drinks in a week.

And guess who might well be feeling flush? None other than the city's richest tycoon, Li Ka-shing, whose A.S. Watson is the sole supplier to the 30,000 affected households.

Yesterday Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung revealed that 6.55 million bottles of water had been distributed to residents in 11 affected public housing estates as of Monday.

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Based on market research data from 2011 and a conservative assumption that each bottle contains one litre, more than 6.5 million litres of the non-tap variety has been handed out over the past four months.

Bulk order discounts and goodwill gestures notwithstanding, city taxpayers have forked out around HK$40 million to ensure a clean water supply to the tens of thousands of public housing estate residents affected by the tainted water scandal.

The emergency handouts have raised the ire of environmentalists, who accuse the government of generating a mountain of plastic waste while failing to provide adequate recycling facilities.

With the installation of water filters in homes, Cheung said the Housing Department would consider "gradually reducing the distribution of bottled water" based on actual circumstances.

I saw there were lots of plastic bottles in waste bins … Even recycling bins were full
Vincent Law King-man

Bottled water was first distributed on July 10 to residents of Kai Ching Estate in Kowloon City, after drinking water there was found to contain levels of lead exceeding World Health Organisation safety standards.

Ten more estates were later found to have the same problem. Water wagons were also used to supply fresh drinking water to residents.

Greeners Action assistant project manager Vincent Law King-man said the provision of bottled water was an "unsatisfactory arrangement" as recycling facilities were inadequate.

"I saw there were lots of plastic bottles in waste bins … Even recycling bins were full," he said, adding that extra recycling facilities should have been provided.

"It was no different from throwing away 6.55 million bottles as the recycling rate was limited."

The group has not undertaken a survey on the recycling rate for plastic bottles.

Law said more water wagons should have been used to avoid distributing so many plastic bottles.

Edwin Lau Che-fung, a former member of Friends of the Earth, also called for better recycling for such a "relatively large" amount of plastic waste.

The Housing Department said it distributed 800-millilitre and 4.5-litre bottles, but was unable to provide the recycling rate.

"There should be a transparent recycling system that helps residents … The recycling rate should always be 100 per cent," Lau said.

According to a study by think tank Civic Exchange in 2012, Hong Kong ranks alongside the highest per-capita overall consumers of water in a list of major global cities including Beijing, London and Guangzhou.