Clear The Air News Blog Rotating Header Image

March 26th, 2015:

Hong Kong’s third-world water management system in urgent need of repair

20 March 2015

Asit K. Biswas

Over the past several decades, Hong Kong’s water supply and wastewater management practices have been on an unsustainable path. Poor planning, absence of sustained interest from its top policymakers, an uninformed public, lack of regular media scrutiny and a series of poor policy interventions have ensured that, today, it lags behind nearly all cities of similar levels of economic development in its management of water.

Hong Kong is a net water importer. Currently, 70-80 per cent is imported from Guangdong’s Dongjiang through multiple agreements. The Audit Commission reported in 1999 that the planners had so badly overestimated city water requirements in the 1989 agreement that some 716 million cubic metres of water literally went down the drain, which cost taxpayers, between 1994 and 1998, HK$1.7 billion.

Even after this sad performance, the next agreement was even worse. The requirement was again another overestimate. Consequently, between 2006 and 2012, the city had to pay for seven years of water imports but in reality used only about six years of water. This over-estimation cost the taxpayers another HK$2.8 billion.

As an adviser to 19 governments, I am not aware of a single city anywhere in the world which has consistently overestimated water requirements so badly for over two decades.

Not only has overestimation been a serious problem, but also no serious policy measures were taken to manage domestic and industrial water demands. At present, average water use in Hong Kong is about 220 litres per capita per day, a figure that is higher than in 2003. This is bad management since in nearly all similar cities of the world, the usage trends are generally declining because of better management practices and increasing awareness of the people that water is a scarce resource.

Accordingly, inhabitants of cities like Hamburg and Barcelona use about half that of an average Hongkonger. In Singapore, per capita water use has steadily come down in recent decades. It is now 152 litres per capita per day, which is still on the high side. An average Hongkonger uses 45 per cent more.

One of the reasons for this very high usage is because water and wastewater provisioning has been subsidised at higher levels with each passing year. The water tariff has remained the same since 1995, but costs of services have gone up steadily. This has resulted in some ridiculous situations, like the city providing private bottled water companies with highly subsidised water, which at the retail level is being sold at over 1,000 times the cost of city water.

The present pricing structure means that a round 14 per cent of Hong Kong residents do not pay for water and sewerage services. Each household now receives completely free 12 cubic metres of water every four months irrespective of their ability to pay. This is in contrast to Singapore, where its national water agency, PUB, not only completely recovers its costs but also makes a profit.

Furthermore, in Hong Kong, there have been no consistent attempts to educate the citizens on the importance of water as a strategic resource. This is again in sharp contrast to Singapore, where the population is regularly made aware of the value of water. The interactive permanent exhibitions of wastewater treatment and water management at its NEWater Visitor Centre and Marina Barrage have become major tourist destinations.

When compared to other Asian cities of similar levels of per capita gross domestic product, like Singapore, Tokyo or Osaka, urban water management in Hong Kong comes out very poorly. But even when compared to some cities in developing countries, like Cambodia’s Phnom Penh, Hong Kong does not fare well.

For the past 15 years, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority has outclassed Hong Kong. Like in Hong Kong, Phnom Penh residents receive clean water which can be drunk straight from the tap. Both the poor and the rich pay for water at affordable prices, and no one receives free water, as in Hong Kong.

Phnom Penh’s water authority, a public-sector autonomous corporation, has been consistently profitable for over a decade and receives no subsidy. All its performance indicators have been consistently better than Hong Kong’s, with many of them better than in London or Los Angeles. Its planning and execution have also surpassed Hong Kong’s. For example, Phnom Penh’s bill collection ratio is almost 100 per cent, and unaccounted-for losses from the water system are about 6.5 per cent, compared to about 17 per cent in Hong Kong.

The question the Hong Kong public and policymakers need to ask and answer is: how did a third world city like Phnom Penh, which has limited technical and administrative capacities, no private sector to speak of, inadequate educational and management facilities and poor governance practices, manage to leapfrog a world-class city like Hong Kong so thoroughly in little over a decade?

Urban water management is not rocket science. There is no reason why any city of more than 200,000 people cannot have a good water system. It is high time for Hong Kong to do some serious soul-searching and find solutions which can radically improve its present urban water system.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. An adviser to 19 countries, he received the Stockholm Water Prize, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in the area of water, in 2006.

Recycling bin contents not separated (since 2011)

March 21 2015

I was appalled last Sunday, when I saw the bins being collected at King’s Park at 8am.

All bins, regardless of content (and including designated recycling bins), were emptied into the same truck. There was no separation of refuse.

Are we just “pretending” to recycle to appease those environmentalists among us, while saving the extra dollars it costs to process, and all waste ends into the same landfill?

Annemiek Ballesty, Sai Kung

In fact, since 2011…

Hong Kong must not build third runway based on vague airspace promises

Albert Cheng says there is no guarantee the mainland will open up its airspace to ensure the success of Hong Kong’s airport expansion

The Executive Council’s hasty decision last week to approve the third runway has triggered a public outcry. Secretary for Housing and Transport Anthony Cheung Bing-leung has scrambled to justify this most expensive infrastructure project in the history of Hong Kong. However, his limited explanations have led to even more doubts.

The most pertinent questions revolve around the city’s airspace entitlements. Flights leaving and approaching Chek Lap Kok are barred from crossing into the airspace immediately north of the border. This has severely restricted the number of planes the airport can handle.

Cheung said Macau and the mainland had signed an agreement with Hong Kong to resolve the issues of congested airspace in the region up to 2020. But he refused to disclose details of the agreement, citing national security.

This is ridiculous. Any consensus among the parties needs to be made known to the airliners and international aviation bodies before they can be put into practice. If Hong Kong was promised any concessions, the industry would need to be informed well beforehand, to prepare for the changes.

None of the third parties have been notified. That can only mean the 2007 plan has nothing concrete for Hong Kong. Cheung’s secretive approach has only added to speculation that the agreement contains, at best, vague principles.

Besides, whatever was written into the agreement is only meant to be valid until 2020, well before the third runway becomes operational in the mid-2020s.

There is nothing in black and white that guarantees Hong Kong would be given the necessary air paths to ensure the success of the third runway.

Airport Authority chief executive Fred Lam Tin-fuk said people should trust the Hong Kong and central governments to solve the problem. He is obviously unaware of the latest findings of the Hong Kong University’s public opinion programme released this week. Only 37 per cent of the people asked said they trusted the SAR government, while only 33 per cent said they trusted Beijing. Trust is in short supply when it comes to how Hong Kong people see their political masters.

Lam is entrusted with overseeing the statutory body responsible for the operation and development of the airport. Taxpayers would have wanted a more prudent chief executive to first resolve the airspace issue before rushing into a bet of HK$142 billion.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made an even more irrational plea: the public should first support the project, and the technical problems could be solved later, he said. His administration does not have a track record of getting the job done to make his call credible.

Leung’s remarks are tantamount to admitting that there is no agreement on the third runway. If mainland bureaucrats are so eager to enhance the facility, they would have done so by now.

Who has been standing in the way? It may have been the Shenzhen airport operator, the Guangdong provincial authority, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the People’s Liberal Army, or other interests. Their agendas are very different from ours. Even if we agreed to take a blind leap of faith with Leung, Hong Kong would still be in a weak negotiating position.

Once construction has started on the runway, the Airport Authority will have passed the point of no return. The Chinese interests are well aware of this.

If airspace problems remain unresolved, the project would become a white elephant and the Airport Authority would face deepening financial liability. Our mainland competitors would be in a good position to demand that Hong Kong give up some of its valuable civil aviation rights in return for access to airspace.

None of our neighbouring Chinese cities can claim to be international aviation hubs. It would be a different story if they could lay claim to part of our rights for bilateral negotiations with other countries. That would spell the end of Hong Kong as a leader in aviation.

It is enshrined in the Basic Law that the Hong Kong government should “take measures for the maintenance of the status of Hong Kong as a centre of international and regional aviation”. Yet, in reality, neither the government nor the Airport Authority has any realistic plan to keep Hong Kong ahead of its neighbours.

Instead of relying on an uncertain third runway a decade later, we should take immediate steps. Any stipulations in the 2007 agreement that benefit Hong Kong should be translated into action without delay.

Failing that, we should at least begin to look at other options, such as levelling the hilltop close to Chek Lap Kok, to enable more frequent take-offs. Only such measures can make us less reliant on the mainland and thus in a better position to negotiate.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [1]

Source URL (modified on Mar 26th 2015, 2:08pm):