Hong Kong's Water Problems: Then And Now

Conserve water posters from 1960s-1960s Hong Kong

Above: Posters from the Public Records Office (Hong Kong) dated 1963, 1963 and 1975 respectively.

One of the vignettes from my graphic novel, The House on Horse Mountain, is about mom getting into trouble at school. But in a way (and I can't say more in case I spoil the plot), it's also about the water shortages that Hong Kong suffered from during the 1960s. Water rationing was a big deal then – at its worst, water was only supplied for four hours every four days, which lead to scenes like this one in 1963:

1963 photo of women, men and children lining up for water

As Dellon M. writes, "[during the 60s] our family was poor, we had to use small tin or plastic buckets as we didn’t have big hard barrels... Selling buckets and barrels could make you a small fortune if you could get a factory to supply them to you."

Since then, the Mainland Chinese government has granted Hong Kong access to fresh water from the Dongjiang (aka the Dong River) and Hong Kong has gone on to become one of the top consumers of water per capita worldwide. Yet this access comes at a price – both fiscally and politically – and as Southern China grows, there will only be more and more competition for the limited water supply from the Dongjiang.

To understand the situation in more depth, here are my top 10 findings from my research into Hong Kong's water problems.

  1. We rely heavily on China for our fresh water. 76% of our water came from the Dongjiang in 2014.
  2. We pay dearly for our water from China, despite prevailing narratives of benevolence and nationalism. The company operating Dongjiang earned 46% of its 2015 annual revenue by supplying water to Hong Kong.
  3. Our Dongjiang water source may not always be there for us. "Regional demand placed on the Dongjiang surged past the level deemed 'ecologically safe' in 2004."
  4. Hong Kong people consume A LOT of water. A 2014 study by the International Water Association cited by Legco found that we consume 38% and 28% fresh water more per capita than Singapore and London respectively.
  5. Water is cheap and heavily subsidized. "The fresh water pricing scheme was last reviewed in February 1995."
  6. 32.5% of water produced is lost to leaks and theft (as of 2015). Despite this, the Water Supplies Department only has 13 people on staff in its Prosecution Unit (as of 2011).
  7. Our new desalinization plant has a starting capacity lower than that of the one we had in the 70s. Coming in 2020: a plant producing 135,000 cubic meters a day. Decommissioned in 1981: a plant that produced 181,800 cubic meters a day.
  8. Hong Kong is the first city in the world to use seawater for flushing according to this Legco report" The scheme started in the 1957 at the Shek Kip Mei and Lei Cheng Uk Estates and now covers 80% of Hong Kong's population.
  9. Public water supply in Hong Kong began in 1851, "when 4 government-funded wells were sunk in Central."
  10. Climate change is coming.

Want to read about how water shortages affected people in Hong Kong during 1960s? Pre-order a copy of my comic book about it!

By Jason Li

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