Hong Kong’s water insecurity: A reflection of its political dilemma

Hong Kong must have a hard look at its continued dependence on the mainland for its water supply and what it costs. Singaporean water policy researcher Shanisse Goh offers lessons for the city to be self-reliant when it comes to water.

The year 2017 is a momentous one for Hong Kong. July 1 marked the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from British to Chinese rule. For the tens of thousands pro-democracy supporters who took to the streets to protest, the date was not a cause for celebration.

Nonetheless, despite the rising unhappiness among Hong Kongers within the past two decades of Chinese rule any one of them would be hard-pressed to dispute the city’s heavy reliance on the mainland be it for necessities such as food and water or trade and investment.

Of particular concern to Hong Kong is the city’s excessive reliance on the mainland for its water supply.

As Hong Kong lacks natural water resources like large rivers, natural lakes or underground water, it is dependent on the mainland for its water supply.

This water supply is provided by the Dongjian River; the 562-km originates in east China’s Jiangxi Province and flows to the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong. Struck in 1965, the Dongjian Water Supply Agreement stipulates water supply from the Dongjiang River in Guangdong to Hong Kong.

The deal that supplies over 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s water has become increasingly a symbol of resistance to China.

It will be time again at the end of the year 2017 to renew Hong Kong’s water-supply agreement with Guangdong province. However, in recent years Hong Kong’s displeasure with the agreement has been mounting.

Hong Kong’s water reliance is essentially a microcosm of the larger dilemma it faces with mainland China. For the tens of thousands of pro-democracy protestors, curtailing Hong Kong’s dependence on mainland water just might be the first step to greater autonomy.

Since 2006, Hong Kong has been getting the shorter end of the stick under Guangdong’s “lump sum package deal” approach. This arrangement stipulates that Hong Kong has to pay the corresponding sum for a fixed supply ceiling, regardless of actual water consumption. Since then, the agreement has cost the city HK$4.5 billion for water it did not consume.

Also, the price of imported water from Guangdong has doubled in the past decade, due to increased competition for water in the Guangdong reservoir. The population has been booming in cities located near the Pearl River Delta and water from the Dongjiang River Basin has been depleted by 30 per cent in the past decade alone.

Further exacerbating the problem is that the Hong Kong government has not increased water tariffs since 1995. Hong Kong’s water pricing follows Increasing Block Tariffs (IBTs), where the government fully subsidises the first block of water consumed. Essentially, taxpayers are paying half of every household’s water bill.

Hong Kong’s low water tariffs result in its citizens being among the top consumers of water in the world; the city’s water consumption in 2015 was 21 per cent higher than the global average.  Also, a huge amount of water—about 32.5 per cent of total production, or 321 million cubic metres—is lost due to theft and leakage.

Another reason for Hong Kong’s high dependency on mainland water is the failure to develop other water resources in tandem with the city’s population growth. In fact, Hong Kong’s imported water as a percentage of water supply experienced a stark increase from 22 per cent in 1965 to 76 percent in 2012. This increased dependency on the mainland for water is extremely troubling.

Here it would be useful to draw a comparison to Singapore; a country similarly resource-poor and reliant on its expansive neighbour for water. Singapore signed its first water agreement with Johor in 1961, and water imported from Malaysia equalled half of Singapore’s water demand then.

However, imported water makes for less than 35 per cent of Singapore’s demand today. By 2061, when Singapore’s latest agreement with Johor expires, the city-state is expected to be self-sufficient despite a doubling of the nation’s water demand.

Singapore’s progress in water security is mainly attributed to its advancement in water technology, most notably recycled wastewater (NEWater), desalination, and stormwater harvesting from highly urbanised areas such as the Marina Reservoir.

In comparison, as recently as 2015, Hong Kong’s water supply comprised rainwater from catchments, imported water, and seawater for toilet flushing. Establishments for desalinated water, water reclamation and recycled water are still in the works.

If Hong Kong is serious about reducing dependency on the mainland, water technology is a crucial aspect of that strategy.

Just as we thought the year could not be more vital for Hong Kong, the first of July also marked the start of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s new administration. Known for being supported by Beijing, her term increases the likelihood of bolstering Hong Kong-China ties.

While fostering a closer relationship with China, Hong Kong can still take certain steps to improve its water security and improve its political leverage. Mrs Lam would do well to leverage on Hong Kong’s bilateral ties with the nation-state and learn from Singapore on the matter of water security for its people.

For one, Hong Kong has to reformulate tariff structures equitably to reflect the increasing cost price of imported water.

In July 2017, Singapore increased water prices for the first time in 17 years, with minimal to no increments for needy families, and rebates distributed to Housing Development Board (HDB) households, Singapore’s public housing.

Hong Kong’s efforts in desalination and recycling should also be stepped up, following in Singapore’s footsteps towards increased self-sustainability. Collaboration in research would greatly assist this pursuit this well.

Although it would certainly be imprudent and unlikely for Beijing to pull the plug on Hong Kong, water remains a crucial way in which the mainland can exert control over the city.

Hong Kong is a city caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If its pro-democracy supporters take its autonomy seriously, the city needs to learn how to swim.


This piece was first published in WaterPolicy.online on 11 September 2017.