Our government triumphantly announced this week that the Police Force will, some time this year, receive three riot control vehicles mounting water cannons. These are being imported specially at a cost of HK$9 million each.

Eh? That comes to HK$27 million for the three. This is a lot of money. It is, by a cherishable coincidence, almost exactly the price of a palace in the New Territories, festooned with illegal structures, fit for the accommodation of a Secretary for Security willing to do anything for the Rule of Law except obey it herself.

Water cannon vehicle
Water cannon vehicle specifications. Photo: GovHK.

Each of the new vehicles will cost twice as much as the most expensive Ferrari. Yet the essence of the creature appears rather simple. We are looking, or should be, at a heavy goods vehicle chassis carrying a water tank, a pump, and a few steerable nozzles.

Consider, by way of comparison, a street sweeping vehicle, which offers roughly the same combination with the nozzle in a different place. You can buy one in Australia, new, for between HK$100,000 and HK$800,000, depending on the level of luxury you want and particularly if you want it to vacuum as well as wash.

If you really want to spend a lot then De Luxe Cleaning Systems in Pune, India, has a model which sells for HK$2.4 million. A rival Indian firm, Nature Green Tools and Machinery, has one for HK$330,000.

But wait, what about the China price? What indeed! This is easy to research because Alibaba advertisers are encouraged to give a price. Guangdong Heavy Industries will sell you a street cleaner powered by a Cummins diesel engine for HK$880,000. Or you can get one based on an Isuzu chassis and engine from Hubei Jiangmen Special Automobiles. Prices start at HK$180,000.

Prefer patriotic local content? Try Hubei Chongje Special Automobiles (they seem to be very hot on clean streets in Hubei) whose completely indigenous models start at HK$290,000.

Of course I am not suggesting that our police can use street sweeping vehicles as crowd control devices. This just gives you an idea of what might be considered a reasonable price.

Actually the earliest use of water cannon for crowd control involved borrowed fire engines, which already have the tank, pump etc. They also provide some guidance on what might be a reasonable price for a law-enforcement water wagon.

There is a whole website devoted to the price of fire engines in the US (no doubt because many fire services are provided by amateur or very local organisations who need the advice) and it suggests that a basic fire engine – tank, pump, nozzle, special equipment – should run to something between HK$1.9m and HK$3.1m.

Here again we can conveniently consider a China price. An upmarket option, the Iveco Tracker, retails for 230,000 Euros, or HK$2.2 million. here it is:

China Isuzu single axle foam fire truck
The China Isuzu single axle foam fire truck. Photo: ECVV.com.

But for a basic piece of kit you can consider the Dong Feng, which goes for a mere HK$200,000. True it only has one nozzle, but these can be bought separately for a mere US$200. Most users find two nozzles sufficient though, as we shall see later, our boys are an exception.

The Dong Feng, below left, may seem to be a cheapskate solution, but consider that for what we are paying you could get a large fleet. You could afford, for example, to have one in each police station.

The Dongfeng water cannon fire truck.
The Dong Feng water cannon fire truck. Photo: Xiaofangchejiage.

Another thought. Boris Johnson, while he was still Mayor of London, agreed to stump up for three water cannon trucks to be used by the Metropolitan Police. Their use, unfortunately, was banned by the Home Office, for reasons which we shall come to later.

So the three water cannons have sat about until now; the current mayor is trying, without much success, to find a buyer for them. Boris has been excoriated publicly for the cost of this little caper, which amounted to GBP300,000, or in round numbers a million Hong Kong per machine. People in London don’t know how lucky they are.

A curious feature of Boris’s water cannon trucks is that they were fitted with CD players. This is an interesting thought. Were the crews to go into action to the strains of some suitable Wagnerian music as in Apocalypse Now? Clip here:

YouTube video

Or was the idea that they should be treated to some uplifting constabulary music like this or like this?

Nevermind. I digress. What seems to have happened is that the Force budgeted HK$9million because what they really wanted was this:

Polizei Wasserwerfer.
A Polizei Wasserwerfer. Photo: Wikicommons.

This is a product of German ingenuity and engineering called the Wasserwerfer, or WaWe for short. The abbreviated version sounds less facetious if you remember that in German the Ws are pronounced as Vs. This is the Rolls Royce of water cannon wagons.

Among other entertaining features, you don’t just get a nozzle or two steerable from inside the cab: you get a light and a video camera on each nozzle so that the operator can, in theory at least, take accurate aim at a target. You also get a lot of armour plating – the appearance of a water cannon brings out the vandal in some people.

Also you are not restricted to shooting water. You can add colour, which will in theory make it easy to arrest people later or in practice will add vandalised clothing to your deterrent effect. Or you can add what security enthusiasts demurely call “pepper”, a noxious chemical distantly related to the stuff you put on your steak.

The retail price of a new WaWe, according the Daily Mail (not a source on which I am keen but why should they lie about this?) is GBP 800,000, or about HK$9 million in 2014 when the machines were ordered.

It is a characteristic of government ordering procedure that you cannot simply pick the item you want. There has to be a specification, tendering etc. And this brings me to an illustration which some media outlets have treated as a picture of the upcoming vehicles.

Actually when this first appeared the newspaper concerned made it clear that this was not a picture of the vehicle: it was a picture of the specification. A certain resemblance to the WaWe is noticeable. The captions indicate some of the requirements which people hoping to sell three large trucks to the Hong Kong taxpayer for $27 million were expected to meet.

What may puzzle some readers is the extraordinary number of water cannons specified. Many police forces make do with two on the roof. One at the back for self-defence is optional, and only likely to be needed in unusual circumstances. Our wagons are going to have no less than 15 cannons.

Three of these are the usual. Two on the side and an extra one on the front are perhaps a concession to luxury. The other nine are “underbody” and not steerable at all. Their purpose apparently is to sweep off his feet any civilian rash enough to approach the vehicle itself while it is in action.

Alternatively, of course, their purpose is to make the whole vehicle so unique that it will be as fabulously expensive as the budget specified.

Most police forces do not have extra nozzles for self defence on their water wagons because if the situation is so fluid that civilians can get near it then the vehicle shouldn’t be there anyway.

Water cannons are not suitable for situations where the police and protesters are mixed up with each other. The cannon are too indiscriminate and the risk of running someone over in a confused situation is too great.

Water cannon are properly deployed behind police lines. This has led to some speculation (published in the New Scientist of all places) that the whole concept may become obsolete. Police lines belong to the days when protest sites were chosen and advertised in advance. Now that protesters can communicate on the hoof with mobile phones the traditional sort of confrontation may be replaced by “flash mobs” appearing and disappearing in unexpected places.

This brings us to another question, which is when, or even whether, these expensive innovations will ever be used in Hong Kong. Not every public order problem is amenable to this approach. There will be no question of a rapid response – the water trucks will live at the PTU place in Fanling.

And though the law and order industry no doubt found Occupy very frustrating, the fact remains that on average a major street confrontation happens less than once a decade.

The example of the existing crowd control vehicles is not encouraging. Yes the police do already have crowd control vehicles, and here they are parading in Fanling.

fanling police

The reason you have not seen them in action is because parading in Fanling is the only thing they have done in living memory.

We must also note that the use of water cannons is fraught with dangers, to police/public relations and also to anyone who is unlucky with the water jet.

The reason why Boris’s purchases were never deployed in London is that the Home Office, at that time under the rule of Theresa May (yes, her) refused permission. She told MPs that exhaustive medical and scientific tests had suggested that water cannons could cause serious injuries including spinal fractures. Also it was considered that the deployment of such a weapon would harmfully affect policing generally.

We can here introduce Mr Dietrich Wagner, pictured with the white stick he now uses.

Dietrich Wagner
Mr Dietrich Wagner.

Mr Wagner is a retired engineer who participated in a demonstration in Stuttgart in 2010. He is not a radical: the protest was against a proposed development which would have involved the removal of a lot of mature trees.

Mr Wagner caught a water cannon blast full in the face. His eyelids were torn and some of the bones around his eyes fractured, causing his eyeballs to fall out of their sockets. He has had six operations on his eyes, and is still almost completely blind.

Mr Wagner is not the only victim of exuberant nozzle work. A 2013 report by the British government’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory found “good evidence … to indicate that serious injuries have been sustained by people subjected to the force of water cannon”. Although water cannon are banned in the mainland UK they are used in Ulster.

A 69-year-old South Korean man died in 2016 as the result of a water cannon blast.

In Zimbabwe three people died after the deployment of water cannons caused panic in a peacefully demonstrating crowd of 10,000.  During the Gezi Park protests in Turkey chemical-laced water loaded into cannons caused severe burns and eye injuries

In Indonesia, in 1996 “British-made armoured vehicles were used in a violent assault on a university campus, which resulted in many injuries and three student deaths.” The Independent reported, “Paramilitary police drove British-made armoured water cannon onto the campus and sprayed the students with an ammonia solution” causing dozens to suffer severe skin burns.

Last week a police spokesman told hk01.com that it may be better if usage instructions and deployment of the water cannons are left unknown to the public. Until the first inquest, maybe.

Well there is nothing really new in any of this. We have a government which spends money like a drunken sailor and a police force whose solution to every problem is more force.

Looking desperately for a bright side in all this I see that many WaWe’s in Germany compensate for their ample downtime by working for the local municipality as giant self-propelled watering cans in local parks. We do not have rolling acres of parks which need this sort of thing. But our threesome are going to be stationed in Fanling, just down the road from three golf courses. A happy coincidence. Keep those greens green.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.