Securing Water For Hong Kong’s Future

By Dr. Frederick Lee 17 January, 2017

HKU's Dr Lee on JC-WISE, a new project aimed to help achieve long-term water sustainability for Hong Kong, HKU's Dr Lee on JC-WISE, a new project aimed to help achieve long-term water sustainability for Hong Kong

HK per capita water use rising while others are reducing; conservation ethics & underpriced tap water are key factors
The 3 year project includes various strategies: innovative water footprint app & public engagement on rivers
HK’s water import quota from Dongjiang may not be guaranteed; pricing & non-pricing measures are needed
Dr. Frederick Lee
Author: Dr. Frederick Lee
Dr. Frederick Lee is Director of the Water Governance Research Programme and an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Hong Kong. His current research projects include regional environmental governance and cultural heritage management. On the former topic, he is examining the institutional constraints hindering cross-boundary cooperation, between Hong Kong and its neighbouring jurisdictions, in managing region-wide environmental externalities in the Pearl River Delta region. He has published in international journals such as The China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, World Development, Environmental Politics, Third World Planning Review, International Development Planning Review, and International Journal of River Basin Management. He has co-edited Asia’s Environmental Movements: Comparative Perspectives (M.E. Sharpe) and Cultural Heritage Management in China: Preserving the Cities of the Pearl River Delta (Routledge).
Read more from Dr. Frederick Lee →

In recent decades Hong Kong has enjoyed a reliable source of freshwater from the Dongjiang River. Being used to this supply, the public may not realise that Hong Kong is actually a water-scarce city. Hong Kong’s daily per capita water consumption has increased gradually between 2001 and 2012. Meanwhile, the consumption levels for other global cities have declined in the same period.

To tackle this issue, the Jockey Club Water Initiative on Sustainability and Engagement (JC-WISE) was launched. The 3 year, HKD14.7 million project, is funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust and hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. It aims to raise the public’s awareness and appreciation of the importance of attaining long-term water sustainability for Hong KongChina Water Risk sat down with Dr. Frederick Lee from HKU to discuss the project and Hong Kong’s water security.

China Water Risk (CWR): Congratulations on the launch of the Jockey Club Water Initiative on Sustainability and Engagement (JC-WISE). Could you briefly explain how the idea came about?

Dr Frederick Lee (FL): The idea came from research findings. My colleagues and I at the University of Hong Kong’s (HKU) Water Governance Research Programme have examined empirical data on water consumption trends in Hong Kong and half-a-dozen global cities in other parts of the world in the past two years. We discovered that while the per capita water consumption levels in these global cities had declined or flattened in the past twenty years or so, per capita water consumption in Hong Kong had gone in the opposite direction—it has risen persistently, albeit very gradually, over the same period.

HK’s rising domestic water use reflects a lack of public water conservation ethics…

We offered a tentative explanation for this puzzling phenomenon: Hong Kong’s rising trend of domestic per capita water consumption is a reflection of a distinct lack of water conservation ethics among the general public. Left unchecked, such a rising trend will deter Hong Kong from reaching its long-term water sustainability goals. As a community, we need to arrest and reverse this trend.

The first step we should take, as researchers advocating science-driven policies, is to rekindle the public’s appreciation of freshwater as a precious resource that deserves higher-priority public and policy attention.

… tap water in HK is grossly under-priced, which also leads to over-consumption

There is also a second explanation for the rising trend. Tap water in Hong Kong is grossly under-priced, leading, inadvertently, to over-consumption. Hong Kong’s water tariffs, for political reasons, have been frozen for twenty years. We are now paying less than half of the cost of production of tap water. As an under-priced commodity, water’s true value is deflated. Addressing this aspect of the water policy problem requires bold and systematic political strategies.

CWR: Much of the project focuses on raising public awareness on Hong Kong’s long-term water sustainability. Could you expand on why this is so important?

FL: Our decision to focus on raising public awareness of water sustainability issues is premised on the water ethics hypothesis. A strong community consensus on viewing and valuing freshwater as a precious natural resource is a requisite pre-condition for mobilising public and political support for a robust water conservation agenda. A strong water conservation ethics could even compel such an agenda.

Empirical data will be collected to verify the extent of validity of this hypothesis in Hong Kong. A vigorous research component is built into the project’s overall design to establish the baseline and to monitor the changes of public water attitudes over the course of the project’s 3-year duration so that we could assess and evaluate the impact of each engagement activity and of the overall project.

Two main misconceptions need to be tackled:

1. That HK enjoys an abundant supply of water

2. That HK water should be valued primarily for its drinking purpose

A policy-oriented concern has also swayed our decision to focus on raising public awareness of water sustainability: Building a strong water conservation ethics necessitates the reversal and removal of two popularly-held misconceptions of freshwater in Hong Kong.

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 re-visit and re-examine the currently taken-for-granted view that the SAR will continue to enjoy a state of water abundance, courtesy of the Water Supply Agreement with Guangdong.

The second misconception stems from an official belief that emanates from the colonial era: Water, in our city, should be valued primarily for its drinking purpose. Subsequently, our community’s perception of freshwater was truncated. Such a misplaced understanding, which overlooks the multiple functions and values of water, has undermined efforts directed at promoting sustainable water use in Hong Kong.

CWR: The JC-WISE project aims to reconnect the local population with Hong Kong’s rivers. What kind of programmes will be put in place to facilitate this?

FL: One important avenue to building a strong water conservation ethics among the general public in Hong Kong is to re-establish the emotional linkages between people and water through the refractive lens of our city’s rivers. A vigorous public education programme, anchored by scientific investigations and facilitated by a set of coordinated community engagement activities, will be organised to enhance the public’s knowledge and appreciation of the multiple functions of Hong Kong’s rivers.

Various databases, events & schemes will help reconnect the HK population to its rivers

An interactive, open-access GIS-based database on Hong Kong’s major rivers will be created to help enhance our understanding of local rivers. The database will cover multiple dimensions of seven selected rivers and their basins, including the historical, geo-physical, hydrological and socio-economic. It will serve as a bedrock of scientific information for the project’s other educational components.

With an aim of reaching out to the larger community, a “train-the-trainer” activity – entitled “My River; My Community” scheme – will be implemented. Under this scheme, the project team will formulate a series of professionally designed routes and train a group of trainers, who, in turn, will take students and members of the public on guided field trips.

“River Stories”, in the form of e-Cases, will be constructed for teaching and training purposes by drawing upon newly-discovered materials that help deepen our knowledge of the multiple values of local rivers and their basins. In celebration of World Water Day (March 22), a Water Fun Fest, a large-scale outreach activity with infotainment exhibitions and interactive games will be held in the second and third year of the project for a duration of two weeks each. Informative and educational documentaries focusing on specific themes, such as the multiple values of freshwater and the intimate relationships between our community and the city’s rivers, will be produced.

CWR: Another key element of the project is to popularise the water footprint concept (the virtual water embedded in goods or services) within Hong Kong. How is that going to be achieved?

FL: Through the development and application of a localised version of the Water Footprint concept, the project will design an innovative Water Footprint calculator mobile app, which is a first-of-its-kind device in Hong Kong. This mobile app will adapt an internationally recognised indicator of freshwater use to Hong Kong’s local conditions. As an indicator, it will help us visualise the multiple linkages between our daily consumption behaviour and global water resources.

An innovative Water Footprint calculator app will be designed

We will start with a focus on food because it is easier for people to visualise and understand the Water Footprint concept through food items which they are familiar with. The decision to focus on food items is also based on an empirical fact: Food consumption accounts for a large proportion of the water footprint of an individual. With this original, user-friendly mobile app as the tool, we will popularise the water footprint concept through publicity campaigns, public forums, Water Fun Fest, and a partnership scheme with the catering industry.

CWR: What do you see as the biggest challenge to wide-spread use of the water footprint concept in HK?

FL: As Hong Kong’s first large-scale project to promote the Water Footprint concept and the multiple values of freshwater, one of the major challenges of the project relates to the question of how best to translate and disseminate complicated concepts such as Water Footprint to the general public. We will make use of multimedia, such as videos and animations, to illustrate and publicise these complex concepts, through innovative, interesting and interactive means.

CWR: The JC-WISE project is planned to run for 3 years. How will the progress of the project be measured?

Targeted impact assessment methods will be used to evaluate individual deliverables

FL: Targeted impact assessment methods will be used to evaluate the impacts of individual deliverables. For example, for the GIS-based database, users will be asked to complete a questionnaire and to provide written feedback on their overall experience, as users, when they finish working with the database. The questionnaire survey can help assess the effectiveness of this deliverable in terms of its contents, mode of delivery, and the usefulness of the database.

CWR: Going back to the project’s conception, does it relate to previous water sustainability initiatives in Hong Kong, such as Water Conservation Week in November?

FL: Water sustainability is one of the core research interests of my colleague (Dr. Cho-nam Ng) and I. As Director of HKU’s Water Governance Research Programme, I have been conducting research on transboundary institutional issues relating to water resources management, with a focus on the Pearl River Delta region. In recent years, Dr. Ng and I have been awarded research grants from the Research Grants Council to conduct research projects on the Shenzhen River transboundary catchment as well as the Dongjiang river basin. Dr. Ng, for instance, holds the view that the functions and values of a river should be understood from a catchment perspective for purposes of strategic planning and the sustainable management of environmental resources.

JC-WISE, as a city-wide public education project, adopts a collaborative approach to work with professional groups, government agencies and NGOs in contributing to the city’s water sustainability agenda. The Water Supplies Department is one of our project’s collaborating partners, and the Water Conservation Week was completed just before the official launch of the JC-WISE project.

CWR: With climate change affecting the Pearl River Delta, how might this impact the water situation in Hong Kong in the long term?

FL: According to IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2015), climate change will lead to an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts.

HK is already feeling the impacts of climate change…

… HK’s water import quota from Dongjiang may not be guaranteed; we need to be prepared

In Hong Kong, the impact of global climate change has already started to affect, albeit silently, our city’s precipitation pattern. In 2011, dry weather conditions caused Hong Kong’s rainfall to fall below the normal level by 40%. Under extreme weather conditions, Hong Kong’s water import quota from Dongjiang may not be guaranteed. Therefore, to prepare ourselves for any uncertainties brought on by global climate change, we should chart a long-term water strategy for our city. An indispensable component of such a strategy, based on research findings gathered from other parts of the world, is the implementation of effective policy actions to manage our water demand through conservation.

CWR: Looking at Hong Kong’s water situation in general, what more could be done to ensure long term water sustainability?

FL: First, we need political commitment, at the highest levels, in setting up hard targets to conserve water (i.e., committed to reaching numerical targets in terms of reduction of daily per capita consumption as well as a set of completion target dates).

Political commitment, pricing & non-pricing measures needed to ensure HK’s long-term water sustainability

Secondly, we need to implement a package of a mix of pricing and non-pricing measures to meet the targets. Pricing measures entail the revision of the water tariffs to recover, at the very least, the cost of municipal water supply. Non-pricing measures include the promulgation of mandatory building codes (such as mandating the incorporation of on-site grey water recycling facilities) and the introduction of a mandatory Water Efficiency Labelling Scheme (to help give choices for consumers).

Further Reading

  • Water Stewardship: The Impact To Date – A new report finds there has been little evolution from business -as-usual in regards to water management. What behaviours need to change? How can this be achieved? We sat down with report authors James Dalton from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) & Peter Newborne from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
  • Integrating Climate & Water Diplomacy For Rivers – Climate change will likely intensify water-related challenges in river basins. Meanwhile, the Mekong River Commission is experiencing funding cuts. adelphi’s Sabine Blumstein shares 3 reasons for stronger integration of climate policy & water instruments
  • Innovating Water Stewardship Through Business Ecosystems – William Sarni, water stewardship expert, on the need for innovation in water strategies in order to better position for 21st Century water risks. Sarni points to “business ecosystems” as the driver for this innovation and value creation
  • Thirsty Business: Why Water Is Vital To Climate Action – Water is key to the shift to a low-carbon world. Yet, companies aren’t moving fast enough as CDP’s latest Global Water Report 2016 shows. Their Morgon Gillespy on key findings from the report and the need for still more action
  • Scotland: The Hydro Nation – Scotland’s ‘Hydro Nation’ vision is underpinned by a statutory duty. Barry Grieg from the Scottish govt on how it manages water with various stakeholders, the many successes so far & what is still to come
  • Hong Kong’s Thirst for Bottled Water – Hong Kong has a plastic waste issue & consuming less bottled water can help this. Why then is Hong Kong still thirsty for bottled water? Mandy Lao explores consumer attitudes towards these
  • Map to HK & Guangdong Water Governance – Amongst rising concerns over the supply of Hong Kong’s principal water source, the Dong River, Kris Hartley proposes a new collaboration framework for HK-Guangdong water governance
  • Hong Kong Water – Agenda & Goals – Hong Kong University’s Dr. Frederick Lee says it’s time for Hong Kong to adopt a users-pay-principle as the territory’s outdated water tariff regime will undermine the success of its water conservation goals
  • Hong Kong: Stepping Up Water Security? – Sophie le Clue looks at Hong Kong’s water security as demand on the Dongjiang River increases – are steps taken by government to address this sufficient?
  • 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
  • 8 Things You Should Know About Hong Kong Water – Is Hong Kong’s water supply guaranteed? Can you drink straight from the tap? How much bottled water does Hong Kong consume? China Water Risk sets out 8 interesting facts about Hong Kong water.