New Tech & Policy For Climate Resilience: 3 Takeaways

By Chien Tat Low, Woody Chan 14 June, 2018

CWR's Low & Chan share expert views from the forum

With looming climate risks, water tech needs more policy support while traditional water supplies call for rethink
With water PPP's & NEWater, China & Singapore lead Asia in promoting the tech-policy interface but HK lags
Interdisciplinary research is the way forward to climate-resilient urban water but 3 mismatches need solving

On 29 March, the new Centre for Water Technology and Policy of the University of Hong Kong hosted an interdisciplinary forum with the theme Climate-resilient Urban Water Systems: New Technologies and Policy Challenges. The forum invited more than 10 speakers from academia, both local and overseas, to share their research and views on new tech and water policy issues critical to urban sustainability. How can policy help mainstream new and existing water tech? Who is leading? What are the challenges? Find out our 3 key takeaways below.

>10 speakers from academia shared their views on new tech & water policy issues critical to urban sustainability

Forum Group Photo

1) New tech needs “think out of the box” policy support from governments

From urban flooding and droughts to extreme weather, climate change is set to bring acute water challenges. Experts such as Dr Ji Chen from the University of Hong Kong and Professor David Chen from the Chinese University of Hong Kong made this very clear. In particular, water supply and quality has been and will likely be affected by climate change. New science and technology might be the answer to such water crises.

“Water is a mess without climate change… with climate change it is much messier.”

                                                                                                                              Professor Michael Hanemann (Arizona State University)


The good news is that there are abundant existing innovative water technologies, plus more in the pipeline. However, these technologies need to be integrated into the planning and development of water infrastructure. In essence, how can technology come into actuality? Speakers at the event gave their views on this, and mainly focus on the need for “think out of the box” policy support from governments:

  • Water tech not just about engineers & hydrologists – This point was established early in the forum by Professor David Sedlak, the co-director of Berkley Water Centre. Using the example of potable water reuse in the San Francisco Greater Bay Area, he noted that new water tech has to serve the public’s interest, merge with merged daily life experiences and needs trust in the government. As such, the government can be the catalyst in satisfying these requirements.
  • Traditional water supply may not be the way forward – Here, Dr Frederick Lee, the executive director of the new Centre for Water Technology and Policy, uses Hong Kong as a case study. Reservoirs have traditionally been seen as a key water supply for HK but do we really need them in the future when the Dongjiang river provides water to the largest ones? Shouldn’t we broaden our attention and secure basin-wide water resources in the Pearl River Delta given our reliance on the Dongjiang?
  • New financing strategies for urban water supply – As Professor Hanemann finds, water is more capital intensive than other public utilities. Private funding is often needed to ease the government’s burden and make the development of a larger project possible. The benefits of public participation in water infrastructure were also discussed.

 2) Singapore & China are two exemplary models in promoting this tech-policy interface

Olivia JensenAmong all examples given in the forum, Singapore and China stand out as the leaders in integrating new water technologies and policies for better and more sustainable water management.

As Dr Olivia Jensen from National University of Singapore showed, NEWater in Singapore recycles treated used water into ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water, cushioning their water supply against extreme weather and moving Singapore towards water sustainability. She also stressed the importance of an existing distribution network in making reclaimed water use more economical.

Water tariff reform & govt support helped establish China as a leader in water PPPs across Asia…

…but Hong Kong lag

Another good example is China’s Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in the water and sanitation sectors. Professor Xun Wu from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology showed that China’s water tariff reform, strong support and oversight from the national government, as well as credible regulatory mechanism helped establish China as a leader in water PPP’s across Asia.

Such best practices would surely be welcome in Hong Kong, which, according to Dr Frederick Lee, still lacks a comprehensive way of managing its water.


3) Interdisciplinary cooperation needed but still silo-ed; action & expectation mismatch

Panel Session1The forum’s participants generally agreed that interdisciplinary research is the way forward to a climate-resilient urban water system. Indeed it was encouraging to see academics from difference fields come together to discuss the issue, from climate modellers to policy researchers. To further advance new approaches for urban water management, researchers have to expand engineering and social science research with genuine engagement with decision makers.

However, we see three more mismatches which need to be solved going forward:

  • Climate science works in averages but water management works in extreme – Climatic science is more accurate at global level but this is not the scale at which water is managed. Instead, policymakers are keen to know the maximum absolute limits at the local level, instead of global averages. Professor Van-Thanh-Van Nguyen from McGill University and Professor Hanemann echoed this mismatch in their talks. This is worsened by the lack of open access scientific knowledge, which we explore here.
  • Mismatch in long-term vs. short-term actions – Water infrastructure needs to be planned for the long-term but at the moment, short-term thinking still prevails. A case in point would be the tendency for CAPEX for water infrastructure to be prioritized while maintenance OPEX is overlooked. Long-term, holistic planning also seems to be lacking in HK: as an audience member pointed out: have the climate impacts of HK’s new desalination plant been considered?
  • Mismatch in financing mitigation & adaptation – As we mentioned in our earlier article, adaption finance in climate change still lags far behind mitigation. Plus, apart from public climate finance, we need to get the private sector involved and enhance its role in adaptation finance. Perhaps the PPPs experience from China could be a good lesson to other countries in Asia too.

There was much interdisciplinary communication in the forum and the knowledge sharing was significant. However, we feel that this is still silo-ed within academia and more stakeholders need to be brought to the table. Nevertheless, the new Centre for Water Technology and Policy is a step in that direction and this forum has put forth a good start. We look forward to hearing more voices from policymakers, investors and perhaps even the public on this topic in the next edition.

Further Reading

  • 2017 State Of Ecology & Environment Report Review – Prioritising rivers appears to have paid off but overall groundwater and Key Lakes & Reservoirs both worsened. Are we now seeing the “real” state of China’s environment? Find out in China Water Risk’s review of the 2017 State Of Ecology & Environment Report
  • Managing China’s Water Stress Drop By Drop – What are the trends in managing China’s water stress? WRI’s Dr Jiao Wang finds that while there is good and bad news, the Three Red Line regulations and local policies seem to have overall positive impacts
  • Reactive Dye Revolution – Innovative tech is popping up as Huntsman’s Holger Schlaefke expands on how their new reactive dye saves costs and water plus cut carbon emissions without additional CAPEX
  • How Green Is Your Beer? – From Tsingtao to Carl sberg, just how green is your favourite beer? Hear from IPE’s Na Wang on findings from their recent environmental impact analysis on China’s beer supply chain
  • Introducing The Better Buying Index – Suppliers can now rank buyers’ purchasing practices with the unique Better Buying Purchasing Practices Index. Explore the index and its first benchmark report with their co-founder Dr Marsha Dickson
  • Water As Leverage For Resilient Cities – Water represents man’s most challenging & complex risk but it can be leveraged for catalytic change. China Water Risk asks Henk Ovink, the first Special Envoy for Water in the world, how this can be achieved
  • Increasing Public Participation In China’s Environment – Can the public participate in environmental decision-making in China? Pacific Environment’s Guo Hanyuan, Kristen McDonald & Zhao Zhong expand on results from their 4-city pilot study and identify challenges
  • China’s Green Planning For The World Starts With Infrastructure – China can exert greater external influence through infrastructure development but Professor Asit K Biswas and Kris Hartley from the Lee Kuan Yew School for Public Policy caution against it citing financial and environmental risks. See more
  • Why Should PRD Business Lead In Water Stewardship? – With the Pearl River Delta set to lead China’s economic growth, China Water Risk’s Feng Hu & the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Zhenzhen Xu explain why business should adopt water stewardship to ensure continued prosperity
  • Key Water Policies 2017 – 2018 – Missed out on key water and water-related policies in China this past year? Catch up with China Water Risk Woody Chan’s review, including the latest on the new Water Ten Law and environmental tax law
  • 5 Trends For 2018: The Year Of The Dog – We could be heading for dog days this year and China is getting ready with economic planning that considers water and climate. Check out our 5 trends and stay ahead of the pack
Chien Tat Low
Author: Chien Tat Low
Low has extensive inter-disciplinary research experience, which although wide-ranging, focuses on identifying hotspots to facilitate better planning. At CWR, Low uses spatial modelling and statistical analysis as well as remote sensing, cartography, and geo-statistics to map and assess water risks. In addition, he helps manage CWR’s extensive network of contributors and partners. CWR is Low’s first foray outside academia and he hopes to apply his 12 years of scientific know-how toward enhancing the understanding of water risk in Asia, including spatial temporal variabilities of anthropogenic and natural factors on water resources. Previously, Low was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Hong Kong where he devised methodologies to measure and benchmark the quality of urban life in an Asian context. As a certified GIS Professional, he also taught GIS and spatial analysis modules there. Low’s research on urban, human and environmental health is published in 11 prominent international peer-reviewed journals; he has also written a chapter in a book on managing environmental hazards. His PhD thesis on place effect on human well-being was prize-winning. Low is currently the reviewer editor for the journal “Frontiers in Environmental Informatics” and also reviews other international journals such as “Applied Geography”.
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Woody Chan
Author: Woody Chan
Woody Chan leads corporate social responsibility and sustainability initiatives at foodpanda, strengthening its commitment to grow sustainably with its ecosystem of riders, merchants, and consumers. As an advocate for environmental sustainability, Woody has also participated in various speaking engagements, from TEDx talks and university seminars to industry forums and panels.
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