The Water Supplies Department (WSD) lacked targeted monitoring to prevent repeated water main bursts, the office of the Ombudsman has found in an investigation.

About 46 per cent of all water main bursts are attributable to aged water pipes or their quality, the government watchdog said.

But the WSD did not start to analyse causes and monitor progress on “hot spots” – government water mains which suffered repeated bursts – until the end of 2016.

water main leak
Photo: Ombudsman.

Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing told a press conference on Tuesday: “If the WSD had taken action earlier, and not waited until 2016 to implement [the policy of] water burst hot spots, then there would not have been over a dozen water main bursts in some areas.”

She said that the department has become more proactive in responding to hotspots since her office’s investigation began, but it should continue to monitor them and prioritise follow up action.

The department should also take stronger action to penalise construction companies who damage water mains, the office said. Senior investigation officer Anthony Yeung Tak-kin said around 10 per cent of water main bursts were caused by damage during construction projects, but on average the department only recovered around HK$31,000 in compensation for each case. The penalties lacked a deterrent effect, he said.

“[The WSD] should remind all works departments concerned that for contractors who cause damage to water mains, such poor performance should be properly reflected under their existing evaluation systems for contractors. For those contractors who cause damage repeatedly, works departments should even consider rating their overall performance as poor, so as to limit their future opportunities of being awarded public works contracts,” the report said.

Ombudsman Connie Lau
Ombudsman Connie Lau. File Photo: GovHK.

Hong Kong wastes about 15 per cent of water in government water mains through leakage – a rate described by Yeung as in the “upper half of the range” compared to other cities. By comparison, Liverpool’s leakage rate is 20 per cent, while Singapore’s is at 5 per cent.

If Hong Kong was to reduce its leakage to Singapore’s levels, it would prevent 96 million cubic metres of fresh water and 27 million cubic metres of salt water from being wasted every year – the equivalent of 38,000 and 10,000 swimming pools respectively, according to the Ombudsman.

The amount of fresh water saved could meet the demands of some 2 million people in Hong Kong over a year, and save HK$530 million.

The department plans to use a new technology to monitor water leakage starting in 2023, but it should speed up the process and set performance targets, Lau said.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.