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[Sponsored] Hong Kong, surrounded by green hills and lush subtropical vegetation, has a seeming abundance of water, especially during the rainy season. However, Hong Kong’s local freshwater resources are in fact quite limited, more so than even parts of the Middle East. It is actually an illusion that fresh drinking water is an unlimited natural resource in this part of the world.

Civic Exchange and ADM Capital Foundation’s latest report, “The Illusion of Plenty: Hong Kong’s Water Security, Working Towards Regional Water Harmony,” highlights Hong Kong’s severe water problems and examines challenges in managing its water sustainably. This new research has received extensive media and political coverage since it was released in May.

Older Hong Kong residents will remember water shortages and rationing in the 1960s and 1970s. It was during this period, in 1965, that the Hong Kong colonial government struck the so-called DongShen Agreement with Guangdong province to purchase water from the Dongjiang, the eastern tributary of the Pearl River.

water hong kong

Hong Kong has not imposed water rationing since 1982, but our reliance on water imported from across the border has been increasing. Since the mid-1980s, the freshwater supply from the Dongjiang has exceeded Hong Kong’s locally sourced water. About 80% of our freshwater currently comes from the Dongjiang — up from more than 20% in 1965.

Since 1990, Hong Kong has seen a remarkable increase of domestic water demand. We annually consume a total of 1.25 billion cubic metres of freshwater and seawater (mostly used for flushing toilets) – equivalent to nearly 860 full bathtubs per person. According to a study on 48 major international cities, our water consumption is among the highest per capita in the world. Our average domestic daily water consumption per person is 21% higher than the global average. The perception of unlimited water supplies plays a role.

There are two contributing factors that drive this consumption. The first is the city’s government-subsidised, low pricing structure that effectively does little to encourage consumers to conserve water. Our water charges are among the lowest rates in the world – even less than New York, London, Tokyo and Beijing.

Chart10 water hong kong

The second is the fact that one-third of Hong Kong’s freshwater may be lost through leaky government mains, private pipes or even theft. The amount of lost water is roughly equal to the city’s own local catchment, and was equivalent to HK$1.35 billion in revenue in 2013 (the only year for which an estimate was made).

The rate of overall water losses in Hong Kong has increased between 2010 and 2015, from 26.5% to 32.5%. It is comparable to the rate in Asia’s less developed cities, where an average of 30% of water is lost. In fact, our leakage rate is considerably higher compared with other developed cities. Tokyo, for example, has successfully reduced its leakage rate from 20% in 1955 to 2.7% in 2010.

Although leakage from the government’s water network comprises a bigger portion of lost water, the proportion has decreased, from 20% in 2010 to 15% in 2015, suggesting the government’s improved efforts to tackle the problem. In contrast, leakage on private properties may have surged sixfold, from a mere 2.5% to 14% over the five-year period.

Chart5 water hong kong

In April, a group of Hong Kong legislators paid a two-day visit to Guangdong to observe the Dongjiang’s water supply and facilities, ahead of the new water negotiations between the two governments.

The over-reliance on the Dongjiang has raised questions about its sustainability. Apart from Hong Kong, the river also supplies water to seven major Chinese cities, including the provincial capital of Guangzhou and the industrial town of Dongguan. It has been affected by pollution as Guangdong province has rapidly industrialized and urbanized. In 2004, the stress placed on the Dongjiang surged past the level deemed “ecologically safe”.

In 2008, Hong Kong’s Water Supplies Department, introduced the Total Water Management strategy to diversify its water supply, including providing solutions to combat water disruption due to climate change. It also pledges to provide “one of the safest water supplies in the world”.

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However, the city does not have a broader policy addressing its long-term water scarcity problem. There are many things that the Hong Kong government could do, but at the very least, they should consider these steps:

  • Establish a source-to-tap policy to ensure water supply is delivered effectively to end users – not unlike what Singapore and the UK have done.
  • Resolve property leakages, especially at private buildings, and also tackle water theft.
  • Shift water policy from focusing on supply to focusing on conservation. One way is to reformulate the tariff structure so that it is similar to those in other international cities – without hurting the financially disadvantaged.
  • Take steps to improve public awareness to conserve water and set per capita water reduction targets.

Freshwater only comprises 2% of the world’s water, with climate change exacerbating the situation. Hong Kong can no longer afford to live with the illusion that is has an abundance of water.

Civic Exchange is an independent public policy think tank based in Hong Kong. It undertakes research in three major ideas: air quality, nature conservation and urban environment, with an overarching framework of promoting wellbeing.

ADM Capital Foundation is an impact-driven foundation with a focus on environmental issues. Also based in Hong Kong, it works towards resolving challenges in relation to marine biodiversity, water security, wildlife trade and forestry conservation finance.