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Below the Surface


Mayling Chan, CEO of Friends of the Earth (HK)

22 MAR 2013

South China Morning Post


Interdependence is a human condition while total dependence is not sustainable in the long run. Dongjiang (east) River belongs to the extensive river system in southern China. Together with Xijiang (west river) and Beijiang (north river), these water sources are valuable assets of the Pearl River Delta.


The water from the Dongjiang river is sustaining more than 40 million people living in cities of: Heyuan, Huizhou, Dongguan, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. There is no reason why a sustainable water policy could not be a shared objective for both our neighbors across the border and the Hong Kong SAR. Although we do not share the same system or rigorous procedures of managing potable water, at least authorities must share principles and best practices regarding preserving water sources and improving water quality.


Nowadays globally, 780 million people lack access to safe water source which is approximately one in nine people; and more than 3.4 million people die each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related causes. In respect to our region, the World Health Organization reported that in China, 119 million people are without access to safe water source in 2010. So why does Macau and Hong Kong have safe drinking water from their taps but Zhuhai and Shenzhen do not? There is an obvious gap in managing, monitoring and reporting on water quality.


During the recent meeting of the National People’s Congress, many representatives warned that a prosperous economy could not stand if the population does not have good air and water. Even if our city has diverse views on livability and quality of life, certainly we believe that air and water are two assets that must have a high priority.


Many of us might not be aware of the determination at the top authority to manage water sustainably. Earlier this year, the State Council announced the most stringent water management system for the whole nation in three major aspects: control of total water volume for use, control of water use efficiency, and control of water quality compliance in functional areas in important rivers and lakes.


Regarding Guangdong Province, the control target of total water use is set at 45.6 billion cubic meters in 2015, and by 2030, 45 billion cubic meters, despite the continuing growth in demand for water through agricultural activities and potable drinking water (including Hong Kong).


This sends the right signal to Hong Kong about our dependency on the water resource of Dongjiang, which over the last 10 years has provided 77% our needs. The Government predicts that by 2030, our water needs will reach 1,310 million cubic meters, a 40% increase from our total water use in 2012.  Although it seems we have no immediate crisis, the Dongjiang water source shows worrying signs. The Guangdong Water Resource Report in 2011 showed that the total water quantity at the Dongjiang River Basin decreased by 30% compared between the decade of 2002 and 2011, and the historical average for the last 50 years.


As to water quality, the announcement of the State Council strictly requires that the functional area of all national rivers and lakes must meet standard by 68% while in 2030, 95%. The implication is clear, apart from volume, the Guangdong provincial government will have a tough mission to fulfill in the coming few years in quality control too. Currently, the water quality of Dongjiang has been decreasing; this situation is compared badly with the other two main tributaries of Xijiang and Beijiang.


Although many factories have been relocated out of the centre of Guangdong province but Heyuan city region, the catchment area in the upper part of Dongjiang, is experiencing a drastic increase in heavy industry. The immediate consequence is the threat of contamination through illegal discharges of toxic materials into waterways.


Coming back to Hong Kong, we are lacking a progressive plan with sustainable strategies and a firm set of targets. In the urban setting, for water management we rely on demand management, efficient water pipe systems, waste water converted to new water, collecting rainwater and storm water run-off, etc. If we compare ourselves to other modern cities, our rate of water leakage in 2011 was 19%, while South Korea 12%, Singapore 6%, and Japan 3.6%. Investing in fixing our pipes could save HK tax payer’s substantial amount of money as each cubic meter of water costs HKD8.


Grey water use in Hong Kong is not sufficiently mentioned and discussed in public. Since the 60s Japan’s grey water system has had targets for reducing freshwater use in flushing toilets, and for grey water to be used for landscape and recreational purposes.  In 2002 Singapore setup their NEWater initiative to meet its future needs with targets set at 30% of their total water use, and focused on treating domestic wastewater from kitchen and bathrooms. In terms of cost, the Singapore Government believes that treating wastewater is a better alternative to desalination due to half the capital costs and one-fourth the energy running costs. So they have given a lower priority to desalination plants providing only 10% of their total water needs.


The financial budget by the Financial Ssecretary Tsang Chun Wah announced a plan for a seawater desalination plant in Tseung Kwan O. The estimated cost is 400 million HKD, per cubic meter, the cost is 4HKD more than the purchase of Dongjiang water. It will relieve our dependence on Dongjiang water by a small margin: 50 million cubic meters, being around 5% of our total consumption rate of 2012. While the Government argues the urgent need for this infrastructure, the public is asking whether this is prioritised water management strategy, when NGOs and Think Tanks are demanding very different priorities: grey water system in all the new buildings to start with, and put substantial investment in fixing all the pipe systems, least to say, demand side management.


A day like World Water Day is an opportune moment to contemplate why the world news shows there is a water crisis but we never feel that pressure in Hong Kong.

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