For several years, Hong Kong has been a city in political turmoil, its population torn between identifying with Chinese authorities and embracing the territory’s unique cultural identity and legal autonomy. Any observer of the city can narrate the stories of mass protests or legal disqualifications of elected representatives that dominate media coverage. But underneath the feet, quite literally, of both protesters and government ministers lies a factor far more important to Hong Kong’s dilemma: access to fresh water—or lack thereof.
Hong Kong’s trouble with its water supply has a long history. Since the end of World War II, the city has developed an overwhelming dependence on freshwater from mainland China. In the 1950s, the thousands of refugees fleeing the Communists caused widespread water shortages in Hong Kong. In 1960, the desperate colonial government, then led by Governor Alexander Grantham, reached a deal with neighboring Guangdong Province to purchase water from the newly built Dongjiang Lake. Though the quick fix temporarily quenched the expanding city’s thirst, droughts in succeeding years and further population growth soon pressured the government to purchase even more water from Guangdong.
With an established dependence, the pipe connecting Dongjiang’s water and Hong Kong grew to have a profound impact on Chinese-Hong Kong relations. The Chinese government was aware of the power of controlling a significant portion of the colony’s water supply. Indeed, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai himself urged negotiators to view “guaranteeing supplies to Hong Kong” as a “political task,” seeing it as a chance to increase their control over the colony’s basic needs. They even went so far as to offer the water for free, which Britain firmly rejected.
After the Opium Wars, China ceded Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Islands to Britain indefinitely, and in 1898, ceded the New Territories for a 99-year lease. But Governor Grantham warned as early as 1956 that the Chinese would restore their rule of the entire colony when the lease for the New Territories was up: China supplied almost all of Hong Kong’s domestic water, all but guaranteeing Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. By the Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s, China’s leverage had become so successful that the British found themselves in an extraordinarily weak negotiating position—forcing Britain to concede the entire territory of the colony.
Today, as Hong Kong gradually integrates into China, this water politicking has only grown in importance. Since the handover to China, Hong Kong has seen a peak in its reliance on Dongjiang water, which today accounts for 70 to 80 percent of the city’s supply (with the other 20 to 30 percent coming locally). The water, which China once offered for free, now comes at a high price: The Guangdong government charges Hong Kong five times more for its water than it does for provincial cities such as Shenzhen. To make matters worse, the current deal for the contract’s renewal, valued at 13.4 billion Hong Kong Dollars ($1.7 billion), represents a 20 percent price increase compared to recent years and has provoked backlash in policy circles.
Mainland water costs more than just cash: It poses a threat to Hong Kong’s political independence. Shenzhen, Dongguan, and three other major Pearl Delta cities also rely on the Dongjiang Lake as their main source of fresh water. Altogether, the number of urban residents dependent on Dongjiang water totals more than 47 million. As pressures from population growth and climate change mount, experts predict a future of intense inter-city competition for dwindling freshwater supplies, a situation that might force China’s central government to intervene.
One solution to reduce dependence might be to simply reduce water consumption, but Hong Kong doesn’t seem keen to be weaned off its thirst for freshwater. Per-capita annual water consumption, at 224 liters, is double the global average and, unlike in other world cities, has increased consistently over the past 15 years. The main culprit of this frivolous water use, experts contend, lies in the 1990s-era water subsidies that conceal the true cost of water. As a result, public awareness of the importance of water conservation is dismal. Worse, the territory’s water pipe system is incredibly leaky, with close to one-third of all city water lost before it reaching consumers. Still more water is lost through theft from the public water supply, most commonly in the form of unauthorized water cooling towers used by small businesses.
The clear choice for a city in Hong Kong’s situation would be to increase its locally-sourced water supply, thereby gaining some leverage in price negotiations. But the local government’s strategy and lack of strong investment have failed to make substantive steps toward water independence. Though the city government claims its 2008 Total Water Management Strategy is both multifaceted and comprehensive, critics have complained that relevant government agencies have “no sense of urgency” when it comes to reducing reliance on mainland water, instead seeing the territory as “entitled to the [mainland’s] resources.” One prominent think tank even goes so far as to declare that the Water Services Department “has been underperforming for nearly two decades,” often failing to meet legal standards, understaffing key water strategy enforcement agencies, and focusing overwhelmingly on engineering with little regard for public awareness.
The steepest obstacle to Hong Kong’s sustainable water future is the lack of political attention the electorate has given to the largely technical debate over water supply. Policymakers have long lamented public ignorance about the water crisis, in what has been called the “illusion of plenty.” Recently, however, citizens and politicians have been paying slightly more attention to water issues. In Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s equivalent of a parliament, pro-democracy members, generally perceived as being more in tune with citizen’s needs, have raised motions to pressure the government to expand local stocks of fresh water. This shows some political responsiveness to the problem, but many of these motions were shot down in party-line votes by the pro-Beijing majority.
Despite these promising signs of public debate, it is doubtful that water supply will gain a foothold in the political consciousness of most Hong Kong residents. This stands in stark contrast to the enormous public attention outcry after lead was found in public drinking water in 2015. The government’s aloof response to the crisis shattered public trust in the current administration, and pan-democrat politicians pounced on the opportunity to use the scandal to hit back at the establishmed government. But even the fallout from this scandal did not translate into heightened public consciousness about the city’s water writ large. If anything, it dialed back progress on water supply security, with residents more hesitant to approve of raised rates by a water services department deemed untrustworthy.
Unfortunately, irrespective of the quality of public debate, the city has limited options when it comes to building a sustainable water supply. Desalination, a tool to remove salt from seawater that has seen success in similar cities like Singapore, accounts for only a small portion of Hong Kong’s current local supply of freshwater. Failed experiments at large-scale desalination projects in the 1980s, as well as its higher cost compared to Dongjiang water, have mostly halted visions of complete reliance on desalination. Cheaper water available nearby reduces Hong Kong’s incentives to produce freshwater at home.
More realistically, desalination could play a part in a larger system of local water supply that would emphasize water recycling, reduced water waste, and rainwater collection. But for this system to succeed, it would have to include reforms in water governance and change public attitudes toward the seemingly plentiful water that flows out of Hong Kong’s faucets. For the territory to do something significant about its water, concerned Hong Kong residents will need the help of both engineers and the general public. Some see politics as a realm of dysfunction, but the water issue will need to be politicized—and thus brought into the public consciousness—before it will ever be solved.
Seen as a public utilities issue, a concerted push for increased water security in Hong Kong should not be controversial. A more self-reliant Hong Kong water system would allow the city to avoid conflict with mainland municipal governments and reduce the strain on what is already an imperiled freshwater source. But, seen in light of its complicated history, the politics of water and of Hong Kong’s status are too intertwined to allow for a simple solution. Mainland China’s control over Hong Kong’s water supply represents an important political tool that will grow in importance as the fight for the city’s soul rages on. For thirsty residents, a cheaper and cleaner drink might just have to wait.