Triple Whammy Hit for HK’s Poor; the Rich can Escape Rising Seas

By Chien Tat Low, Debra Tan 23 August, 2022

How will rising seas deepen climate injustice in Hong Kong? What can the government do to protect the poor? CWR's Dr Low & Tan share a 3 point to-do list

1.62mn HKers will be impacted; 95% of these are from low & middle-income households. Top 10 popular housing estates are also not immune = must protect the poor from SLR
Poorer areas will likely be abandoned first as rising risks & adaptation costs = prioritise high revenue generating areas/critical infra; planned retreat via transformative adaptation is necessary
Cheaper housing more prone to rising seas + loss of insurance = need 'buyer beware' labels + new building regulations. A dedicated coastal threat defence task force can help coordinate

“The people’s aspiration for a better life is what we are striving for” said President Xi in his speech in Hong Kong in July. Baked-in climate threats ahead will no doubt disrupt such aspirations. Xi is also not wrong when he said that most Hong Kongers want more decent housing, more opportunities for starting their own businesses, better education for their children, and better care in their twilight years.” But what happens if our homes, opportunities and futures are lost to rising seas because we did not heed international scientific consensus and adapt to low-regret scenarios?

The poor will suffer the most. As the IPCC’s Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability warned: with increasing global warming, losses and damages increase and become increasingly difficult to avoid, while strongly concentrated among the poorest vulnerable population”.

Hong Kong is not immune to the climate crisis & HK’s poor will suffer more

Hong Kong is no different; we may think that HK is immune as the climate crisis will only impact poor people in developing countries, but this is not true. HK’s poor will suffer more – in fact, they will face a triple whammy hit while the rich can afford to escape to their multiple homes in the SAR and beyond.

So, should the new government not heed President Xi’s advice to “be more courageous and adopt more efficient measures to overcome difficulties and forge ahead”? Surely, the least it can do is to alleviate the poor’s triple whammy hit. Here are 3 point to-do list…

1. Low to middle income neighbourhoods will suffer more = protect the homes of the poor from SLR

An “Unlucky Typhoon Mangkhut” could bring storm tides of 5-7m across Hong Kong today. Since the IPCC warns that 2m of sea level rise (SLR) by 2100 “cannot be ruled out”, Hong Kong has to be ready for 10-12m of storm tides by 2100.

22% of HK people will lose their homes to rising seas with low & middle income households bearing the brunt of impacts – only 5% belong to rich households

Already at 6m, the impacts are significant: our analysis in the “Protect Our Homes” factsheet shows that 22% or 1.62mn of Hong Kong residents will lose their homes to rising seas. Low (HK$10k – HK$29k) and middle-income (HK$9k- HK$60k) households are disproportionately affected, bearing the brunt of impacts – see chart below. Of the 1.62mn residents affected, only 5% belong to rich households.


More specifically, nearly half of affected residents come from low-income households earning less than HK$29,000. These are clustered in Yau Tsim Mong, Sham Shui Po, Tuen Mun and Yuen Long. Popular middle-income housing such as HK’s Top 10 popular housing estates will also not be immune – see here for how much in terms of residents & property values – it’s in the hundreds of billions of HK$.

Climate change will only widen the already huge poverty gap in HK

Surely given such impacts, climate change will only widen the already huge poverty gap in HK. The government must act and put in place a comprehensive adaptation plan for these neighbourhoods. This will be in line with what President Xi wants, after all he urged the newly inaugurated HKSAR government to make sure that all citizens in Hong Kong share more fully and fairly in the fruits of development”.

While we wish for all to be protected, the reality is that this may not be possible … bringing us to the next point.

2. Poorer areas will likely be abandoned first = planned retreat via transformative adaptation

Adaptation needs money and government reserves should be well spent to ensure the greatest benefits. For example, it is a no brainer that HK should devote resources to protect Victoria Harbour as it houses HK’s financial hub and lots of expensive commercial real estate as well as homes.

It is a no brainer that HK should devote resources to protect Victoria Harbour, the airport, ports & other key revenue generating areas…

…a cost-benefit approach will always disadvantage poorer areas…

…ultimately we may have to abandon some areas

Defending low-lying ports and the airport, which are essential for trade is also prudent. But don’t forget that securing key basic needs such as water, food and energy – all of which are also low-lying – are also equally vital.  However, what’s less clear is if billions should be poured in to defend less revenue generating areas like Tai O, Sai Kung, or outlying islands like Cheung Chau and Lamma Island.

Ultimately, we may have to abandon regions that cost too much to defend or that are geographically undefendable. Regardless, a cost-benefit approach to adaptation will always disadvantage poorer areas as they tend to generate less revenue for the government.

Escalating climate risks also mean that adaptation costs will rise. It is therefore important to get adaptation right from the start so that money is not wasted on maladaptation efforts. As it is, climate financing for adaptation already lags that of carbon transition with only 7% of climate finance flowing to adaptation projects.

Sadly, escalating risks will also result in more areas becoming more difficult to defend as hard adaptation limits are approached. Here, “advance and planned relocation” strategies will have to be thought through and implemented over time so as to cause minimal disruptions to lives and livelihoods.

Planning for higher and longer-term sea level rise impacts will help filter out such planned retreat strategies; New York is already doing this – see what the city is doing here. Perhaps in HK, the Northern Metropolis can be planned with climate migration in mind?” Otherwise, where will these vulnerable groups move to if their homes are permanently submerged by rising seas? Can they move to other neighbourhoods with cheaper housing? Sadly no…


3. Affordable housing more vulnerable to rising seas + loss of insurance = need “buyer beware” labelling + new building regulations

Unfortunately, most affordable housing in Hong Kong is found clustered in low-lying areas or reclaimed land. Our analysis of over 10,000 listed properties for sale by a popular agency showed that at any one time around a fifth of properties listed (2,988) are affected by coastal impacts at 6m.

Cheaper per square foot properties are more at risk to coastal threats than expensive ones

Cheaper per square foot (psf) properties are more at risk to coastal threats than expensive ones. Of the 2,988 properties affected, almost 70% of them belong to the two cheapest categories of <HK$15,000psf and HK$15-19,000psf – see chart below:

This implies that low to middle-income group buyers may face a higher chance of losing their homes compared to those who could afford more expensive properties. Unless serious adaptation efforts are made, these poorer groups will have no choice but move to safer places which will be by then even more expensive.

Premiums for coastal properties will only rise with time & affordable insurance may no longer be available in the future…

Something else that will also be more expensive is insurance. Premiums for coastal properties will only rise with time and worse still, affordable insurance may no longer be available in the future as risks manifest. This could happen sooner than you think!

For example, in New Zealand, a government-funded study warned that affordable insurance may no longer be available for its coastal population as early as 2030. By 2050 a full retreat of insurance from coastal properties is expected. Without insurance, one cannot get a mortgage, essentially rendering homes to zero resale value.

This could also become a reality for Hong Kong. Such a loss of home insurance will be disastrous for HK – the write-downs will be unbearable for the public who would have sunk around 21 years of their income into buying their homes. Coastal threats will not only increase existing economic inequality but also cause more people to fall into poverty by losing their home, triggering a vicious cycle.

…HK should set up a “Buyer Beware” warning system for potential property buyers

Surely to avoid this, HK should set up a “Buyer Beware” warning system for potential property buyers. Perhaps the HKSAR should make the disclosure of the property’s flood risk mandatory upon its sale like New York? Or make the flood risk map publicly available like in England. The public can thus make informed choices before spending their hard-earned savings.

Another way is to lower risks for the poor is to introduce new building regulations that ensure that developers/the government is not building more housing that will be in harms way. For example, the new homes in the Northern Metropolis must be futureproofed against coastal threats or else the area will be just another flooding hotspot like Tai O, Lei Yue Mun or Heng Fa Tsuen.

Better governance to protect the poor

Alleviating the poor’s triple whammy hit will only be possible if HK has a dedicated coastal defence task force to catalyse transformative adaptation. Not only will transformative adaptation help the government guide the public away from investing in areas that will be abandoned to rising seas, it could also inform future land sale, property development and building guidelines.

HK needs a dedicated coastal defence task force to protect the poor & to catalyse transformative adaptation for HK’s future success

Transformative adaptation can also help HK banks manage their exposure to rising seas. The HKMA stress tests clearly show that banks are exposed – of the 27 banks which participated, “32% of their Hong Kong property-related lending is pledged with collateral located in vulnerable areas and thus exposed to material physical risk”. Physical risks mentioned are mainly due to floods and typhoons.

We all want a better and more comfortable life; the poor want this more and work hard for it. But rising seas could take this hope away – their hard work, washed away with along with their home if the government does not act to implement low-regret adaptation.

The HKSAR government must deal with this climate injustice. After all, President Xi saidThe newly inaugurated HKSAR government should be pragmatic…. It should make sure that all citizens in Hong Kong share more fully and fairly in the fruits of development so that every resident will be convinced that if you work hard, you can improve the life of your own and that of your family.”

Climate change will redraw Hong Kong’s coastlines. It’s time HK actively responds – we must adapt to thrive. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to Re-IMAGINE HK, we must grab it to build a city that is carbon positive, climate ready and resilient. But we must be mindful not to “Build Back Better”, but to “Build Forward Better” to cater for the deep uncertainties ahead from climate risks.

We must innovate reach-for-the-sky financial, economic, engineering, tech, design, nature-based, policy as well as societal solutions to Re-IMAGINE HK. This should be an inclusive exercise – the young and old, the poor and rich, together we can build a Hong Kong that still thrives in a vibrant GBA despite rising seas.


See “8-Factsheet Survival Guide for HK to survive rising seas”


Further Reading

  • 3 First Steps To Protect HK From Rising Seas – The IPCC AR6 warnings on rising seas bring bad tidings for Hong Kong. If you are 20 & younger, HK could become the new Atlantis in your lifetime unless we take action now. See 3D maps of areas submerged and get on top of what you need to do to survive, adapt & thrive
  • IPCC AR6 WG2 Demands We Build A Climate Resilient Northern Metropolis – Hong Kong’s northern metropolis, slated to home 2.5mn & key to its food security, must adapt or risk being underwater. CWR’s Dr CT Low expands & highlights opportunity for transformative adaptation as per the latest IPCC report
  • Adapt or Die: 8 Things You Must Know for An Effective Resilience Roadmap – The IPCC AR6 WG2 report says there is still a narrowing window for us to act to limit impacts. To help get us to ‘climate resilient development’ & avoid maladaptation, CWR’s Debra Tan highlights 8 survival must knows from the report
  • Key Takeaways From Futureproofing Cities To Avoid Atlantis – Hard truths, disconnects & next steps on coastal protection for the water & finance sectors were discussed at the CWR-SIWW joint event. CWR’s Dawn McGregor shares key takeaways
  • No-Sense Climate Strategies: From DSD To HSBC – Hong Kong’s shortsighted & unrealistic climate plans will leave key assets & infrastructure exposed that mean the government, companies, investors and the public are even more exposed. China Water Risk’s Dharisha Mirando & Debra Tan expand

More on Latest

  • Dear John Lee, Heed President Xi’s “4 Hopes” & Futureproof HK – Rising seas could sink HK. CWR shows the new HK government how President Xi’s 4 proposals made during the 25th Anniversary can guide the way to adapt & futureproof HK so that it will “rise and shine brighter than ever”
  • Hong Kong Rising Seas Adaptation Is Way Behind New York & Singapore – New York & Singapore are planning adaptation to levels of sea level rise that are 4-6x HK’s. CWR’s Dr CT Low & Debra Tan highlight key planning stumbling blocks & layout steps HK urgently needs to take
  • HK Stranded! – ‘Asia’s World Low-lying City’ –  With more than 200+ islands, HK is more like Fiji than not. Ready to swim from island-to-island when parts of HK’s well-connected transport system are lost to rising seas? CWR’s Sophie Lam debunks dangerous myths to avoid a stranded island-city reality
  • Hangry & Submerged – A New Vision for HK Food Security – Whilst grocery shopping, CWR’s Sophie Lam becomes ‘hangry’ over absurd food miles & HK food insecurity from climate threats ahead. With no holistic adaptation strategies in place to defend against rising seas, she shares her ideas for a new ‘food’ vision to ensure HK’s food security
  • Young HKer’s Climate Change Revelations on HK & the GBA – Shocked, CWR’s Lam did not realize HK’s hefty reliance on the GBA. See this young HKer’s revelations on why HK cannot be resilient without working together with the GBA & what led her to reject her UK job offer to stay in HK & fight for its climate future


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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Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
Read more from Debra Tan →