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Hong Kong's Silent Water Crisis

Hong Kong is not exactly a city you would associate with a shortfall in water. For those who recently faced down super typhoon Mangkhut, such a suggestion probably sounds ridiculous. And yet, the troubling reality is that Hong Kong is more naturally water scarce than parts of the Middle East and Africa.

As citizens, we remain blissfully unaware of this troubling reality, thanks to bountiful imports from the Dongjiang, literally ‘East River’, which flows through Guangxi and Guangdong Provinces. In any given year, between 70 and 80% of Hong Kong’s water supply is extracted from these southern Chinese provinces and piped over 100km to Hong Kong. Once reaching our northernmost limits, the water is pumped via a myriad of pipelines extending over 8,000km – a distance equivalent to a flight from Hong Kong to Cairo – through reservoirs, treatment facilities and pumping stations to the base of every home, office block and factory in the city.

Now, this feat of engineering is unquestionably remarkable, a testament to the foresight of civil engineers in the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, it is impossible to even mentally picture all those pipelines crisscrossing underneath our city’s concrete veneer, let alone the effort to construct and maintain them. And yet, therein lies the problem. The way in which Hong Kong has expanded, rapidly, yet piecemeal, has resulted in the city encasing its vast network of pipes in a near impregnable shell, making repair work costly, difficult and slow.

This matters; a recent report, ‘The Illusion of Plenty’, revealed that Hong Kong loses at least a third of its freshwater supply before it even reaches the consumer, the majority through leaking pipes. To provide some context, around a third of Hong Kong’s water supply is stored in its reservoirs. Accordingly, the volume of fresh, treated, drinkable water that is lost each year (over 300 million m3) is equivalent to the volume of water stored in all 17 of the city’s reservoirs combined.

Around half of the losses occur from government pipelines, due to ageing infrastructure, the use of faulty materials during construction and repairs, and ground settling. The remainder is lost through leakage on private properties, unsurprising as many of Hong Kong’s thousands of buildings are reaching their thirties and forties – equivalent to service life of the original pipelines and fixtures.

So far, the government’s repair work has focused primarily on the parts of the system it can reach more readily – under roads, for instance – addressing leakage on private properties reactively (i.e. when a pipe bursts). This is all the more concerning when the speed of repair work is considered – an internal inquiry found that half of leakage complaints were left unresolved by the WSD for two months.

The upshot of this all is that Hong Kong is facing a creeping crisis, which is only getting worse, as ageing infrastructure and daily wear-and-tear erode our local water system.

As time wears on, the situation will only worsen. Considerable personal effort to reduce water consumption is a key part of solving this. By reigning in our consumption, we can return demand to a level that our local catchments can actually sustain. But greater public outcry is also required. Local politicians – from District Councillors to the Chief Executive –need to be told that water conservation is something that the community cares about. We must ensure that our city’s water does not continue slipping through the cracks.

Sam Inglis is Environment Research Manager at ADM Capital Foundation and the lead author of ‘The Illusion of Plenty: Hong Kong’s Water Security, Working Towards Regional Water Harmony’. A Hong Kong native, he holds an MSc in Climate Change & Risk Management from the University of Exeter, and has been researching environmental issues in Asia since 2012.

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