Water politics

Why Hongkongers aren’t showing enough gratitude to Heyuan residents


Much of Hong Kong’s water comes from Guangdong’s Heyuan – and Wanlü Lake in particular (pictured above)

The state of Lesotho is surrounded on all sides by South Africa. Normally the two countries get on well enough, but last year Lesotho suffered from a serious drought and people began feeling a little resentful towards their encircling neighbour. Why so? Lesotho had plenty of water stored in its reservoir, but most of it was already earmarked for delivery to customers in South Africa.

Until there are signs of shortage few people wonder where their water is coming from. Ignorance about the source of supply certainly seems to be the case in Hong Kong. From the results of WiC’s informal survey this week, few people grasp how dependent the city has become on neighbouring Guangdong province in China.

Frederick Lee, director of the Water Governance Research Programme in Hong Kong, said in an interview with China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based think tank, that the local population has a “misconception” about the Special Administrative Region’s water supply.

“The first misconception is that Hong Kong enjoys an abundant supply of water. The fact is Hong Kong is an inherently water-short city. We need to revisit and re-examine the currently taken-for-granted view that Hong Kong will continue to enjoy a state of water abundance, courtesy of the Water Supply Agreement with Guangdong.”

The agreement has been in effect since 1960, a time when Hong Kong was experiencing frequent droughts, exacerbated by the surge of migrants crossing the border from China.

Water rationing was common (fans of Noble House, James Clavell’s famous novel about Hong Kong during the period, will recall that water shortages crop up in the plot to underline American ignorance about the city). And in real life, the Hong Kong government sought a solution by importing water from the Dongjiang (East River) system in northern Guangdong. The arrangements still exists today, under an importation contract called the Dongjiang-Shenzhen Water Supply Scheme.

In 1960, the agreement transferred 22.7 million cubic metres a year to Hong Kong. By last year, the assigned volume had reached 820 million cubic metres, and it is forecast to increase steadily to 1,100 million. This is the ceiling for supply that Guangdong guarantees: the actual volume imported each year varies according to need, but under the agreement the Hong Kong government pays Guangdong the same fee regardless of its actual usage.

Water from the Dongjiang system accounts for roughly 80% of fresh water consumption in Hong Kong, making it an indispensible resource (indeed, lack of its own water supply was one of the chief reasons that a reluctant Margaret Thatcher agreed to hand back Hong Kong when a treaty expired in 1997 – her officials pointed out that the Chinese could turn off the taps should Britain refuse to give the island up).

However, according to Hong Kong Vision, a think tank, Hong Kong has only utilised an average 85% of its water guarantee from Dongjiang over the last 10 years. This has left some ­– among the few who know about the arrangements – feeling that the city is being overcharged by the Guangdongers.

According to the China Daily, the cost of the supply contract increased from HK$3.96 billion ($510 million) in 2014 to HK$4.8 billion this year. This was in line with an agreement signed in 2014 (Hong Kong’s government signs a new contract every three years). Shortly after the deal was reached, a senior Hong Kong official was asked during a Legislative Council meeting why the government had agreed to a “package-deal lump-sum” rather than seeking to adjust the payment scheme to a “payment on actual supply quantity” policy.

The response was that “given the keen competition for Dongjiang water from Shenzhen and other cities in Guangdong province, the Guangdong side considers that they will have difficulty in guaranteeing that the water supply quantity requested by Hong Kong can be met”.

In other words, Hong Kong is paying a premium for its water security. Hong Kong Vision estimates that the cost of the city’s supply is five to six times higher than for water provided to Shenzhen and Dongguan, which Hong Kong Vision says “appears unfair”.

For one other less known Guangdong city, the cost of securing Hong Kong’s freshwater supply seems even greater. According to the China Daily, 40% of Hong Kong’s water comes from a single lake in the Dongjiang system, north of Heyuan city: Wanlü Lake. The water in the lake is clean enough in some places to drink directly, which is no small achievement in an area often scourged by pollution. Especially so as Heyuan is mineral rich, holding more than a third of Guangdong’s iron ore deposits, making it a desirable area for mine operators.

In fact Heyuan has turned down 300 investment projects that could have threatened the lake’s water purity and closed hundreds of mines. The chairwoman of the city’s committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Gong Zuolin, claims these shut- downs have reduced Heyuan’s GDP by Rmb50 billion ($7.28 billion).

Some of the locals feel a bit aggrieved that their economy is hostage to Hong Kong’s thirst. And others have been looking for a bit more gratitude too. “I hope Hong Kong people know how much we have sacrificed and how hard we try to guarantee the water quality,” Lai Jinsong, the deputy of the Wanlü Lake Environmental Supervision Branch told China Daily this month.

Sadly for Lai and his colleagues, few Hong Kong people know anything about Heyuan’s contribution. No one in the WiC office had heard about the lake or Hong Kong’s reliance on the water that it supplies. And when we conducted a voxpop poll of the market stalls in the Central district, none of the 20 people we spoke to knew that two-fifths of their water came from the Wanlü.

Perhaps our readers in Hong Kong will now know a little more about the deal with Guangdong and be more mindful that the provincial authorities stopped Heyuan from adopting the same pollutant-heavy growth model seen in many other mainland cities – pretty much for Hong Kong’s sake.

Indeed, at a time when relations between a reasonably large percentage of Hongkongers and the mainland have been bad tempered, it might even be worth showing more awareness of the special treatment.

Perhaps that’s why the China Daily recently devoted a whole page to Heyuan in its Hong Kong-based edition – although we suspect that the state-owned newspaper’s audience in the city probably isn’t the one that needs persuading…

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