Claiming Hong Kong has a water crisis may sound too far-fetched for many. After all, the last water restriction Hong Kong people can recall was in 1981, thanks to the supply of fresh water from Dongjiang River in Guangdong since 1965.
Yet just north of Shenzhen River – a border getting more permeable by the day, water crisis is a reality for the 5 million Shenzhen residents who suffered from water stoppage as recent as last year. By Shenzhen government's estimate, the city will face in 2010 an annual water shortage of 690 million cubic meters, only 10% less than what Hong Kong now imports from Dongjiang. For water planners who know that Hong Kong and Shenzhen share largely the same raw water source, alarm bells have rung. If this has not been the public reaction of government officials, it is a sign of institutional flaw.
The concept of a water cycle is plain to schoolchildren: from the sea to clouds to rainfall to run-off to human use then back to the environment. Though a simplified picture, experts these days agree that the best approach to manage water is to take into account of all the components of the water cycle – an approach recognised as integrated water resource management.
In the SAR government the business of the water cycle is divided among three departments: the Water Supplies Department for potable and flushing water supply, the Drainage Services Department for stormwater drainage, sewerage and sewage treatment works, and the Environmental Protection Department for sewage planning and regulatory control.
There is a pressing need for the establishment of a Water Authority to integrate all functions relevant to the water cycle. This requires a consolidation of all functions of the above three departments under one roof except that EPD should take charge of the now-segregated regulatory functions concerning discharges to the environment and set itself up as an independent regulator. This set-up will benefit eco-efficiency in resource management, operational efficiency, and public access to information and participation in decision-making.
Eco-efficiency stems from the realisation that water is a precious resource. Not only should water be wisely and equitably used now, but it should also be conserved for our future generations. Dongjiang River , now supplying over 70% of our fresh water, is not guaranteed for life. Sewage discharge from surrounding developments degrades its quality day by day; cumulative demands from fast-growing cities such as Shenzhen will soon outstrip supplies. When crises loom large, the piece of paper on which our long-term supply contract with Guangdong authorities was signed may not offer much protection.
A Water Authority with comprehensive responsibilities can be empowered to assess and harness different types of water resources for different uses, be it seawater, treated sewage or stormwater run-off. The Singapore example of recycling urban drainage and tertiary-treated effluent can be reviewed as to its appropriateness for local applications. It can also explore the viability of, for instance, a separate distribution system for high quality drinking water derived from the relatively clean raw water in local reservoirs whilst reserving the contaminated Dongjiang water to supply the bulk of other tap water uses. At present the hands of departmental officials are tied by the fragmented set-up.
A full-fledged Water Authority will be able to deal more effectively with its counterpart across the border – a key to Hong Kong 's sustainability. Not only must the existing long-term water purchase contract be renegotiated with great care and foresight, but the government must also find itself a meaningful role in the holistic management of the Pearl River basin . Unless a resource conservation policy is implemented on a regional basis, the livelihood and the economic miracle created by the 50 million inhabitants in the Pearl River Delta – Hongkongers included, will be endangered.
By consolidating two and a half departments into one, there is plenty of scope to deliver improved services at lower costs. Operational efficiency can be achieved at two levels: by spending capital sums more wisely through integrated planning for the water cycle and by operating existing assets with consolidated inputs.
Public access to information, participation and justice related to the environment is fundamental to the concept of sustainable development. A new Water Authority should increase operational transparency and institutionalise consensus-building mechanisms, such as public hearing and multi-stakeholder dialogue in policymaking. One notable project that suffered from past institutional weakness was the Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme. The exclusive bureaucratic process led to public distrust and ultimately the scheme's collapse two years ago.
Hong Kong will not be a pioneer for an integrated Water Authority. Both Singapore and Shenzhen have undergone similar exercises in the last three years. We only have to learn, improve and excel on the basis of an abundance of international experience.
The case for a Water Authority is clear. Will our officials have the political will for reform?