A Vulnerable Dongjiang is a Vulnerable HK

By Debra Tan 11 July, 2012

Su Liu of the Civic Exchange on HK's laissez-faire attitude towards water and why time is running out

Dongjiang's water resources are falling and yet 40 million people depend on the river, including Hong Kong
Increase in urbanisation, industrialisation and pollution will apply more pressure on the river
With 80% of water from the Dongjiang, Hong Kong is in urgent need of a long term strategy on water security

Abstract: As the ability of the Dongjiang river basin to supply water faces increasing challenges as a result of demand pressures and pollution, PRD and HK are increasingly vulnerable. While water has received the highest leadership attention in China, it is still a neglected issue for Hong Kong. With the new HKSAR Administration taking its seat on July 1st 2012, there are only 30 months left before CY Leung and his colleagues renew Hong Kong’s water supply contract with China. Hong Kong needs a long term water strategy for its own sustainability, and needs it now.

The Dongjiang River Basin (DJ Basin) directly supplies the industrial, domestic, and ecological water used by nearly 40 million people living in six cities: Heyuan (HY); Huizhou (HZ); Dongguan (DG); Guangzhou (GZ); Shenzhen (SZ); and Hong Kong. The five cities of Guangdong Province situated in the Dongjiang River Basin are home to about 50% of the population of the Province and generate about 70% of Guangdong’s total GDP.  Hong Kong buys about 80% of its fresh water from the Dongjiang and to both Hong Kong and the DJ Basin, these waters have already become the “water of politics”, water of life” and “water of the economy”; its importance to the economy and livelihoods of Hong Kong residents cannot be overstated.

In recent years, Guangdong Province has promoted policies for industrial relocation. These policies aim to disperse the concentration of factories in the PRD to other regions of the province including the western and eastern “wings” and the northern mountainous region. These locations, besides being target areas for industrial relocation, are also undergoing a process of rapid urbanization.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of industrialization and urbanization on the DJ Basin, Civic Exchange, a public policy think tank based in Hong Kong, organized an on-the-ground expedition to investigate water resources, utilization and conservation measures in the DJ Basin from 21 October 2011 to 4 November 2011. This article summarises the key findings of the expedition. (For the full report click here, for photos of the expedition click here)


Dongjiang’s water resources

The total water resources of the Dongjiang Basin have declined in in recent years. The quantity of average annual water resources over the last ten years was 23.1 billion m³, 30% less than the historical average of 33.1 billion m³.

Dongjiang is the first river basin that has a total water allocation cap for all cities extracting water from it. The “water allotment agreement” has been effective since 2008. Of the six cities that share the Dongjiang’s water, three are regional centres and social economic power houses of China, as such their future water demand is expected to continue to rise.

By 2010, all five cities in the Mainland had reached, surpassed or were near reaching their maximum allotment. Although Hong Kong has not used up its full amount, this is anticipated to change in the next 2-3years.

Increasing pressure: demand , pollution and urbanization

HZ and HY in particular are experiencing rapid urbanization and industrialization. As such, their future water demand will increase rapidly. Based on local authority estimates, by 2020, DG, HZ and SZ will all face serious water shortages. At the same time, population growth in the region will continue, straining already highly stressed water resources.

Meanwhile, industrial relocation is moving up-stream in the Dongjiang River Basin.  Population growth, industrial relocation , urbanization and wastewater emissions are all expected to increase significantly and quickly. Given the lack of wastewater treatment facilities, weak monitoring and law enforcement, land erosion and illegal rare earth mining, plus damaged water purification capacity of the Dongjiang as a result of disorderly hydropower development, the total quantity of pollutants entering rivers is estimated to overload the rivers’ absorption capacities. Thus, further degradation of water quality seems inevitable.

Data from 2008-2010 shows that water quality in the Dongjiang Basin has already decreased, supporting the above. In 2006, the percentage of the river course where water quality met or exceeded standards was above the provincial average; by 2010, Dongjiang’s water quality lagged behind the provincial average, with only one-half of sampling locations along the river length having water quality that met or exceeded standards.

In areas where urbanization and industrialization have not taken place, there is a whole set of different problems. Lack of basic sanitation services in rural villages together with illegal rare earth mining and unmanaged agricultural non-point pollution are damaging the hydrology and ecology in water catchment areas, creeks and tributaries of the Dongjiang, especially in Xunwu and Anyuan, the river source regions where have been classified as national poverty stricken counties.

Tension between development, livelihoods and environmental protection in these regions is high, because both Xunwu and Anyuan are well-known rare earth towns. In order to protect national strategic resources and the Dongjiang water sequestration region, the government has been heavily regulating rare earth metal mining in these counties. However the profit margin associated with rare earth is high and the alternative to make a decent living is limited. Consequently, although villagers know the disastrous effects of rare earth mining on the environment and are actually suffering as a result of these problems, they are still the main labour source of illegal mining.

In recent years, both Xunwu and Anyuan have been seeking alternative development options in the “post-rare-earth-mining” era. Building a navel orange town seemed like a rewarding option for its economic promises. However it seems that this maybe solving one problem while creating another. Many of the orange orchards are located on steep slopes covered with tailings left over from rare earth mining. Agricultural run-off that contain high concentration s of fertilizers and pesticides flow freely into the river whenever rains.

Prioritising long term water security

The Dongjiang is clearly overloaded, both in terms of the increasing demand for water and decreasing water quality as a result of pollution. Timing is critical to safe guard this important river that feeds both the PRD and Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, relatively few Hong Kong residents are aware of this situation. Most have no idea how hard life was during the water restriction era of the 1960’s. Even for those who have experience, the collective memory seems distant, with water being so readily available today.

Hong Kong’s residents today, do not seem concerned about whether we have enough water to use or whether our water is clean, this is a worry in itself. It is more dangerous however if policy makers do nothing. While Hong Kong’s existing water supply contract is up for renewal in 2014, the Dongjiang we rely on is becoming increasingly vulnerable given water demand and pollution, thus the time is right to address long term water security issues for Hong Kong and the PRD.

The new Hong Kong government urgently needs a comprehensive water strategy to reflect the State Council’s Opinion on Implementing a Strict Management System for Water Resources. Based on Hong Kong’s needs and water availability, the government should act accordingly. The new administration also needs to enhance collaboration with Guangdong Province and other stakeholders to protect and manage water resources, not only the Dongjiang but also the whole of the Pearl River Basin.

Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the China Water Risk team. She was tasked with taking The Asia Water Project pilot to the next level and was responsible for the direction and build out of China Water Risk portal for ADM Capital Foundation. Debra started her career in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker. She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore. Debra left banking to explore her creative side. She has since pursued her interest in photography and within a year had her first solo exhibition sponsored by a global bank. She also ran and organized hands-on philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network and applied her auditing, financing and photography skills in the field for various charitable organizations and foundations. Debra believes that we can all make a difference, if only we see the ‘big picture’.
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