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Commentary ... ...
    Find other ways to quench HK thirst

2005-01-31 07:16

The reported drought in the Pearl River catchments areas for the third consecutive year and the resulting distinct lowering of the water level in the estuary has caused serious backwash of sea water, worsening the quality of drinking water in the cities of Macao, Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen. Since prolonged consumption of highly saline water is bad for the kidney, many people in these cities have started using bottled mineral or distilled water for drinking and even cooking. From the middle of January, huge volumes of water have been diverted from Guizhou and Guangxi to Guangdong to raise the water level in the Pearl River Estuary and thus improve the quality of drinking water there.

But the supply of water, and its quality, to Hong Kong has never suffered even though we consume water from East River, a tributary of the Pearl River. In fact, many Hong Kong citizens are not even aware of the serious crisis being faced by our neighbours. For, the supply of water to Hong Kong has been viewed as an important political assignment, and thus we have been pampered for decades by the central government.

It all started in the late 1950s when Hong Kong suffered a severe water shortage, being hit by a long drought and a rapidly growing population. At the height of the crisis, water was supplied for only four hours a day, four days a week. For many old residents, enduring the hardship of carrying home water from public faucets and re-using it several times before throwing it away was one of the most memorable common experiences.

The colonial government then approached Beijing for help, and Premier Zhou Enlai personally made the decision to transport water all the way from the East River to Hong Kong. But reaching water to Hong Kong then was an engineering feat. Engineers were assembled from all over the country to quickly build the necessary infrastructure, and from 1960, most of the water we consume has come from the mainland. In 1989, Hong Kong and Guangdong governments reached a long-term water-supply agreement, and Hong Kong gradually phased out the expensive desalination plant. Now water is channelled from East River's upstream to Hong Kong through a pipeline via the Shenzhen Reservoir to ensure its quality.

Since then, the structure of Hong Kong's economy has undergone a sea change with practically all its factories being relocated across the border. Subsequently, the demand for water in industrial units dropped drastically, leaving a surplus in the volume previously agreed upon. The surplus water is not only being paid for, but in the end is also being discharged into sea, a wastage that has led to a public outcry. In July 1998, a year after the handover, the SAR government reached an agreement with the Guangdong government to reduce - over a seven-year period - the agreed annual supply of water from 30 million cubic metres to 10 million cubic metres. After that, the supply of water is to be reviewed on a yearly basis until the agreement expires in 2010.

Despite this concession from the Guangdong government, Hong Kong still faces the problem of surplus water. In 2002, we discharged as much as 51 million cubic metres of water into the sea, at an estimated purchase price of HK$200 million. This has led some legislators to suggest that the agreement be amended again to lower the price by 20 per cent and to pay according to actual consumption.

The Guangdong government has resisted such a request, insisting that we should honour our contractual commitments. In fact, after the Asian financial crisis, the Guangdong government invested the money realized from the sale of water into the Guangdong Enterprise Holdings Ltd to save the then newly public-listed company. So it couldn't have risked a change in the agreement. This was when the central government came to the rescue by reimbursing the Guangdong government the difference, an amount estimated to be around HK$2.7 billion, in five years - a big gift to Hong Kong.

Fresh water today is one of the most precious resources on earth. With rapid industrial development and population growth in the Pearl River Delta region, there has been a corresponding rise in the demand for water and, on the other hand, widespread water pollution. Not for long Guangdong will find itself short of clean water supply. In other words, despite the continuing benevolence of the central government, and the co-operation of the Guangdong government, we cannot expect to be looked after forever. Some time in the future, there'll come a point when Guangdong will have to decide if it will look after itself first, and then supply Hong Kong with only what is left. This is to say that we have to start finding other ways to be more self-reliant in water, and we have to do that in the not too distant future.

Building more reservoirs and fresh water lakes is out of question because we simply don't have enough land area. So the only way out is to explore new technology in desalination.

Singapore suffers from the same problem as we do and has been quite successful in using anti-osmosis technology in making drinkable water. We should start learning from their experience. More importantly, we have to shake off our wasteful habits, and quickly start a water re-use and recycle programme.

(HK Edition 01/31/2005 page12)


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