In Hong Kong, water is taken for granted because it’s readily available, of good quality, and very cheap. We turn on the tap and it’s always there. The thought of water rationing might as well be ancient history to those that were born after the 1970s. Water is so ubiquitous in Hong Kong that most of us know little about it. Here are some interesting facts about Hong Kong water you might not know that may make you think twice the next time you leave that tap on…
1. Hong Kong uses more water per capita than most first world cities.
According to the Water Supplies Department (WSD), Hong Kong’s total water use in 2009 (both fresh water and salt water) was 3,350 million litres a day1. Hong Kong, unlike most other major cities, uses salt water for flushing, so from that total fresh water accounted for 2,608 million litres and salt water 742 million litres. This amounts to an annual per capita consumption of 172.1 m3, making Hong Kong one of the highest water consumers per capita when compared to other advanced cities. We use more water per capita than Paris, London, Singapore, and Melbourne2.
Figure 1: Water use per capita of global cities
Source: Various government departments and institutions, see footnote 2 and 3 (* domestic use only)
Figure 2: Hong Kong fresh water use breakdown4
Source: Civic Exchange
However compared to Chinese cities especially Guangzhou and Shanghai this is not bad3. But unlike most mainland cities Hong Kong does not have any significant agricultural or industrial users, and over 50% of our water is for domestic use. Since 85% of all water is used for industry and agriculture in China, especially in some of the driest regions of the country, Hong Kong’s water use habits seems disproportionate by comparison.
2. Hong Kong water tariffs are one of the lowest in the world.
Hong Kong water is cheap compared to other major cities in the world. In fact, the first 12m3 of water used every four months is free for all domestic users5.
With a relatively high GDP per capita, Hong Kong’s water could be priced higher, however as figure 3 illustrates, Hong Kong’s drinking water price is actually very low relative to its GDP when compared to other countries.
Countries with comparable GDP per capita such as Netherlands, Switzerland, and the US all have higher water tariffs. In fact even countries with lower per capita GDP such as Israel and Japan have higher water tariffs than Hong Kong.
If we take a look at the absolute price from around the world (figure 4), again we can see that Hong Kong water tariffs are relatively low.
Water tariffs in other Chinese cities are also low, currently accounting for only 0.8% of national household disposable income. Given water availability in China, the Chinese government recommends a water tariff level of 2-3% average household income as a reasonable level7. This implies a significant tariff hike which could impact Hong Kong’s lifestyle choices given Hong Kong’s dependence on China’s water supplies (see point 3 below). For more on tariff hikes check out “Water Price Hike” in the Big Picture and/or opinion piece “Food for Thought”.
Figure 3: GDP – Drinking water charge
Source: International Water Association6
Figure 4: Water tariffs around the world
Source: China Water Risk, GWI
3. Hong Kong relies on mainland China for 70-80% of its water.
Hong Kong’s 2010 annual fresh water usage was 935.56 million m3 whereas its total reservoir capacity was only 586 million m3 according to the WSD. Given current levels of precipitation, Hong Kong’s 2010 catchment yield was only 228.02 million m3 making it reliant on Guangdong to make up the remaining 70-80%. This indicates that if supply from Guangdong was disrupted, Hong Kong may have to revert back to the water rationing days before it started importing water from the mainland in the 1960s.
4. Hong Kong’s water is only guaranteed to 2014.
Hong Kong’s water from China comes from the Dongjiang River, a major tributary to the Pearl River, 83 km north of Hong Kong. The Dongjiang also serve as a major supplier of fresh water to seven other cities including the heavy industrial and commercial centers of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Dongguan.
Figure 5: Cities supplied by Dongjiang river
Source: Civic Exchange
In 2011, Hong Kong renewed its water supply contract with Guangdong for another three years. Under the current agreement with Guangdong authorities, Hong Kong will pay HK$3.5 billion in 2012, HK$3.7 billion in 2013 and HK$3.9 billion in 2014 for a maximum supply of 820 million m3 per year from Dongjiang River. The agreement also allows Hong Kong the flexibility to raise the maximum amount of water it imports from 820 million to 1.1 billion cubic m3 per year if deemed necessary8. Thus the supply of Hong Kong’s water is guaranteed, regardless if there’s a drought in Dongjiang. However, of the other cities supplied by Dongjiang, each had its allowance allowance decreased during dry water years9, only Hong Kong has a guaranteed supply. Will this luxury continue after 2014?
5. Hong Kong will face increasing competition for water.
Currently the water quality of the water that comes from Dongjiang is guaranteed to conform to the national standard set out for Type II waters10, and according to the Chinese government, water quality remains good in the Pearl River Delta, however the quality varies by section. According to the 2009 Report on the State of the Environment report by the Ministry of Environmental Protection, of the 33 sections of the Pearl River under national monitoring, 84.9% met Grade I to III quality, 12.1% met Grade IV and 3.0% failed to meet Grade V. However, the Shenzhen River was heavily polluted11. Although Guangdong’s rivers may be less polluted compared to some of the other rivers in China, pollution is still a problem affecting water supply. To learn more about pollution status throughout China, visit the big picture.
Figure 6: Classification of water pollution in China
In addition to pollution, droughts contribute to the problem. An ongoing drought in Xijiang, another major tributary to the Pearl River, resulted in 900 ships being stranded in December 2011. The river’s runoff decreased by more than 30 percent in December due to lack of rain, however water was retained in the Changzhou reservoir and not discharged to alleviate the situation to ensure drinking water supplies in January. Otherwise there would have been only enough water for twelve days12.
Clearly the region is water stressed, and though Hong Kong’s supply is guaranteed at the moment, there’s no promise that this will remain looking forward as cities in the region continue to grow and develop economically. Hong Kong may find itself subject to a cap on water or even decreasing total supply of water from Dongjiang.
The No. 1 document issued by Beijing in 2011 already proposed to limit China’s water consumption to within 670 billion m3 by 202013. This means that the possibility of future limits on Hong Kong’s water supply from Dongjiang is quite real and cannot be ignored.
6. Hong Kong’s water is good enough to drink.
According to the WSD, Hong Kong’s water is actually among the safest in the world14. The quality of the local drinking water conforms to the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). However poorly maintained plumbing can affect water quality, for example rusty pipes may lead to discolored or foul smelling water. According to Hong Kong’s Waterworks Regulations, the consumer is responsible for the proper maintenance of the building’s plumbing15. So as long as you maintain your plumbing in good condition, Hong Kong’s water is actually safe to drink from the tap without having to boil.
If you are still unsure about drinking from your tap though, installing a filter is often an easy solution to ensuring the water quality you get from your tap. (Not sure on what water filter to use? Check out “Filtering Ideas”.).
7. Hong Kong drinks enough bottled water per year to fill IFC Two and pays 1,000 times more for the privilege16.
Even though Hong Kong’s water is cheap and clean, bottled water is still all the rage. In 2008, more than 275 million litres of bottled water was sold in Hong Kong generating HK$2.68 billion in revenues17. An amount roughly equal to the volume of Two International Finance Centre.
This is despite the fact that bottled water in Hong Kong costs 1,000 times more than tap water.
It is worth remembering that there are other environmental costs associated with bottled water from the production and disposal of the plastic bottles to the carbon costs of shipping. In addition we often don’t know what exactly is in bottled water. (To find out more about what’s inside bottled water read “Just What is Bottled Water”.) Perhaps in these economically unstable times, we could save by buying less bottled water.
8. Water embedded in Hong Kong’s meat imports from China is greater than water supplied by Guangdong
Production of meat is water intensive. Importing food is actually an indirect way of importing water.(To see how much Virtual Water Content is embedded in meat, check out “Water Foodprint” in the Big Picture.) According to Hong Kong’s Food and Health Bureau, in excess of 90% of all our meats including pork, chicken and beef come from the mainland.
Based on import data provided by the Center for Food Safety, figure 6 shows us the total major meat imports from the mainland in 201018. Using the Water Footprint Network’s global average Virtual Water Content embedded per tonne of meat, we can estimate what Hong Kong’s meat imports mean in terms of additional water consumption. The results are eye opening:
Figure 6 – Meat imports from the mainland and their water impact
Source: Water Supplies Department, Food and Health Bureau, Water Footprint Network, China Water Risk
The amount of water Hong Kong imports indirectly from China via its meat imports is a staggering 1.586 billion m3- over 50% more than the total amount of fresh water Hong Kong uses annually (2010: 935.56 million m3). Hong Kong is actually much more dependent on China’s water supply than most of us realize.
China water risk affects us all
In a city where high quality water flows cheaply from the tap, it is understandable that a lot of us will take water for granted. Although we see China’s water problems in the news frequently, most of us don’t make the connection with Hong Kong. But in reality, Hong Kong is highly dependent on China’s water supply, and whether we like it or not, China’s water risk affects us all.
- Read more on the government’s steps on securing HK’s water in our “Hong Kong: Stepping Up Water Security?“
- Read Hong Kong government’s plan on water in our interview with Bobby Ng, Assistant Director Development at WSD “The Future of Hong Kong Water”
- “Hong Kong Water: 5 Challenges”: Industry veteran, Daniel Cheng, MD of Dunwell Enviro-Tech and Deputy Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Industries talks about HK’s 5 challenges in securing reliable water supply.
- Read more on what Su Liu of the Civic Exchange says on HK’s laissez-faire attitude towards water and why time is running out as the Dongjiang River becomes more vulnerable in “A Vulnerable Dongjiang is a Vulnerable HK“