Water: Tale of Two Cities

By Su Liu 13 January, 2014

Civic Exchange's Su Liu compares HK's strategy towards water scarcity with Singapore's. Who's ahead?

At height of water rationing, HK received water once every 4 days, each time for 4 hours
Since 1965: Dongjiang supplied 70-80% of HK's water whilst Singapore pushed for water independence
Singapore aims for 50% NEWater & 30% desal; whilst HK zero for reclaimed water and 5-9% for desal

The early 1960s was a significant era for both Hong Kong and Singapore in terms of their water policy development.

From June 1963, HK imposed the highest level of water rationing…. once every 4 days, and each time only for a 4 hour period

From June 1963, Hong Kong imposed the highest level of water rationing. The residents were supplied with water once every four days, and each time only for a four-hour period. This rationing lasted a year. In April of the same year, Singapore implemented 12-hourly water rationing by district zones, which quickly spread to the rest of the island. Every day from 8am – 8pm the water supply was suspended; this policy lasted for ten months. Both events marked the worst and longest water rationing in the history of both cities.

These hard lessons taught the two city governments that they needed to take serious actions on water, to prevent being brought down to their knees and experiencing similar hardships in the future. 1965 was the year the future direction of both cities was laid down.

Hong Kong

The DongShen Project (which was initiated in 1960) formally started to supply water from Dong Jiang River in Guangdong province to Hong Kong in 1965. By 1985, supply from the Dong Jiang surpassed local yields and soon became the dominant water source in the city. Meanwhile, the long history of innovativeness in water solutions, through policy and engineering, came to an abrupt end when abundant water supplies were secured from the DongShen Project. These past achievements included construction of fresh water reservoirs in the sea, which gained worldwide recognition as a feat of engineering. The introduction of a seawater toilet flushing system, made Hong Kong the only city in the world to have a dual water distribution system that is still functioning. However, early attempts at developing large-scale desalination in the city did not last long, with its biggest desalination plant dismantled in 1992.


In 1965, Singapore gained independence from Malaysia, and chartered its two water supply agreements with Johor State in Malaysia at about the same time as Hong Kong’s with the Guangdong government, to supply the country with more than 80% of its fresh water. The first agreement, between 1961 to 2011, expired in 31 August 2011 without renewal. The second agreement, from 1962 to 2061, will expire in less than 50 years, and the Singapore government has already announced that they have no intention to renew it. In recent years, Singapore has adopted a number of innovative solutions to boost its water supply, turning Singapore from a water scarce city into “a city of gardens and water”. These innovations include a massive push towards the production of NEWater, its own brand of reclaimed water treated to drinking quality, and desalination, which failed in Hong Kong, mushroomed in Singapore and became one of the four national taps.

What is the single most important reason why these two cities moved apart from their previous very similar approaches in dealing with water dependency?

Different paths since 1965

Before 1965, both Hong Kong and Singapore were under British colonial rule, and had very similar political and administrative structures and way of governance. In 1965, Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia, and everything that was relevant to the city’s survival became issues of national security. As declared by the former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, “ … [water] dominated every other policy. Every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival.”

“ … [water] dominated every other policy. Every other policy had to bend at the knees for water survival.”

Source: Lee Kuan Yew, Former Prime Minister of Singapore

One might argue that Singapore’s innovative water resources planning and management might have come about through sheer desperation, with its lack of native water supply in its territory. Nevertheless, the policies that have emerged from this imperative have come from a clear national vision and coordinated effort. Such thinking of water security has been a consistent priority for the city-state’s leadership, and led to the formulation of an integrated and holistic long-term water policy that promoted coordination among the different ministries, agencies and sectors irrespective of individual interest.

In contrast, Hong Kong has taken a one-way road approach which has led to water dependency since the DongShen Water Supply Scheme came into the picture.

For the colonial government, the DongShen negotiations were a matter of business. Water was considered a commodity and the import of water merely a commercial transaction. The British authorities in Hong Kong conceded that the importation of water was the most convenient and economical option. This was despite the various attempts from the Guangdong authorities to periodically increase prices, and a requirement for Hong Kong to provide advance payments, at no-interest, to assist in the expansion of the DongShen Project as preconditions of the exchange.

For the Chinese government, the resource exchange was much more than just a trade deal. Commercial consideration is only one of the many factors of the deal, the underlying political intention was a far more important driver which enabled the Central Government’s “long-term planning and full utilization (長期打算,充分利用)” policy towards Hong Kong. In short, solving Hong Kong’s long term water shortage safe guards the core interest of the Chinese Communist Party.

The result was the DongShen agreement which came into effect in 1965, supplying 70-80% of the average annual freshwater needs of Hong Kong at a negotiated price.

This decision was to set the scene for future negotiations between the Chinese and British government over the future of Hong Kong.

…during the handover talks, the British found themselves in an “indefensible” position …

HK was then reliant for not only 70% of fresh drinking water from the mainland, but also had 99% of its local water reservoir capacity located in the leased lands of the New Territories

While the DongShen deal has stabilized Hong Kong’s water supply needs, during the handover talks, the British found themselves in an “indefensible” position.

Hong Kong was then reliant for not only 70% of fresh drinking water from the mainland, but also had 99% of its local water reservoir capacity located in the leased lands of the New Territories; a lease from China that was set to expire.

Giving up Hong Kong Island (which the British held in perpetuity) seemed the only plausible option,

The blessing of having access to a more than adequate supply of Guangdong water, and with the Central Government’s administrative support on water supply issues, seemed to have spoiled Hong Kong policy makers. After a generation of having secure Dongjiang water to reply on, Hong Kong people seem to have forgotten about the severe water rationing that was in place only 30 years ago.

Split strategies: water independence for Singapore whilst Hong Kong grows more dependent

Moving forward, Hong Kong may rely comfortably on the DongShen Project to further supply 70 -80% of Hong Kong’s water supply for at least the next 20 years. Meanwhile, Singapore is turning its back on buying water from its neighbor, and has introduced a Water Masterplan to meet its water needs until 2060.

The plan involves:

  • turning 90% of Singapore’s land area as water catchments (30% in Hong Kong);
  • boosting NEWater and desalination capacity to meet 50% and 30% of its water needs respectively (almost none for reclaimed water and 5-9% for desalination by 2020 in Hong Kong); and
  • targeted reductions of domestic water consumption to 145 litre per person (Hong Kong has no target yet).

While Singapore aims for water independence  …HK has cemented its dependence on Guangdong’s water supplies

While Singapore aims for water independence, Hong Kong has cemented its dependence on Guangdong’s water supplies, and gone are its early innovative and proactive spirit.

As Singapore maps out its strategy for the next 50 years, what kind of plans does the Hong Kong government have to ensure a sustainable water source for the next generations?

A water expert once said: “There is no scarcity of water in the world, there is a scarcity of good public policy for water in the world”. This is indeed reflected in the slackness of the Hong Kong government in dealing with its water resources issues.

What’s missing in HK’s water policy is not the lack of water resources locally …

…but the lack of long term vision and determination to become a more responsible and self-resilient city.

Since Hong Kong gained a stable supply of Dongjiang water from Guangdong, there have been almost no holistic water policies that address Hong Kong’s long term development need. The idleness in policy making is also an irresponsible choice regionally, considering that water resource are shared, belonging to all people along the Dongjiang water basin. Hong Kong is an outlier of this basin. We live on purchased resources amidst a region that is changing economically, socially and politically, and cannot be guaranteed forever.

What’s missing in Hong Kong’s water policy is not the lack of water resources locally, but the lack of long term vision and determination to become a more responsible and self-resilient city.

Further Reading

  • The Future of Hong Kong Water China Water Risk talks to Bobby Ng, Assistant Director of HK’s Water Supplies Department on the government’s plans for the territory’s water supplies
  • 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 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
  • 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?
  • Harvesting Hong Kong’s Rain Given HK relies on China for 70-80% of its water, Angel Wong of AECOM explains how harvesting HK’s rain can turn cities into catchment areas

Recent Research

Su Liu
Author: Su Liu
Su Liu is the Great China Manager and Policy Researcher of Civic-Exchange, a Hong Kong based independent and non-profit public policy think tank. Her work in Civic Exchange covers mainly water related policy research and China related project coordination. Su was a former public opinion researcher (Deputy Managing Director of the Gallup Organization HK), and a communication strategist (Deputy Managing Director of Wirthlin Worldwide Asia).
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