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What you should know about Hong Kong’s new drinking water regulations

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China’s hairy crab scandal reveals depth of pollution crisis

Toxin-tainted crustaceans raise doubts over clean-up of showpiece lake

Every autumn, Hong Kong restaurants serve a seasonal delicacy: hairy crabs, shipped the same day from lakes around the Chinese city of Suzhou.

But the territory’s food safety inspectors recently made a shocking discovery: some crabs in this year’s consignment contained dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals. Even worse, the crabs appeared to come from Lake Tai, a model in China’s fight against pollution after a multiyear, multibillion-dollar clean-up.

Has the clean-up failed? Or is something else amiss? The answer, says crab breeder Wang Yue, lies in “bathing crabs”, which carry the Lake Tai name but have spent minimal time in its waters.

Mr Wang and his family tend hundreds of crabs in baskets hung from bamboo posts in shallow Lake Tai, also known as Taihu. He estimates the market for crabs has grown to three times what families like his can produce, so crabs grown elsewhere are brought to the lake for a few days so that they can be sold on at a premium — a practice known as giving them a “bath”.

“The crabs here are sweet and tasty because the water is fresh. But people in other cities don’t know the difference,” he said. “Some people can make a lot of money by pretending they come from Lake Tai.”

Lake Tai and nearby Yangcheng Lake provide top-quality hairy crabs. But so many are cultivated elsewhere — in nearby lakes, ponds dug into former rice fields or even under solar farms — that prices have been depressed and breeders on Lake Tai struggle to break even.

The bathing crabs affair appears to be a classic Chinese food safety story, where an explosion in production outpaces regulators’ ability to police quality. But the bigger problem is the long shadow cast by China’s polluters.

A showcase environmental clean-up has markedly improved water quality at Lake Tai. But the costly success does little to address China’s broader soil pollution crisis.

Over the past decade, central planners drew up blueprints to tackle smog, water pollution and soil pollution by closing or moving factories, regulating emissions and improving monitoring — the playbook used at Lake Tai.

The result has been a steady improvement in COD, a measure of the organic content in water and one of Beijing’s environmental targets. But the dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyls found in the crabs could come from poorly regulated waste incinerators or steel sintering elsewhere in the Yangtze Delta region, or wherever the bathing crabs are raised.

“It may be discharged as air emissions but if it showed up in crabmeat it’s because the emissions got into the water and the soil, the sediment,” said Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist. Persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs “are hard to decompose. They are persistent. They will stay in the environment for a long time.”

From Mr Wang’s weir, the water smells fresh. A bucket of snails on his porch and the egrets perching on the bamboo struts testify to the improvement in water quality.

It used to be much worse. In the 1990s, 1bn tonnes of rubbish, waste water, pig manure and fertiliser entered Lake Tai every year. Petrochemicals, smelting and textiles turned the waterlogged region into one of the wealthiest in China. Local governments turned a blind eye to polluters.

In 2007 a toxic algae bloom cut off drinking water to 2m people for 10 days. Weeks earlier, authorities arrested a local man campaigning against factories dumping waste in the lake. He was jailed for three years.

After the algae bloom, Beijing declared the lake a natural disaster zone and ordered it cleaned by 2012. It shut factories and moved foundries to industrial zones, installed waste water treatment plants and discouraged pig farm expansion. A widened channel to the Yangtze river helped water circulate.

“There are 35m to 40m people around this lake who rely on its water. So the government had to prioritise it,” said Fang Yingjun, head of Lüse Jiangnan Public Environment Concerned Center, a non-governmental organisation. “Every year we go to the same spot to check the water for algae and every year it’s better. It really is much better. So much money has been spent.”

It was not easy. The warm, shallow lake is the perfect spot for organic pollutants to trigger algae blooms. At 2,338 sq km, it is one and a half times the size of Greater London — big enough to hide plenty of sins.

“You can’t really see the polluted water any more but companies are still good at disguise,” said Wu Lihong, the campaigner who was jailed. Lake residents still spot underwater pipes leading from factories. This summer a secret landfill for waste from Shanghai was discovered on an island in the lake.

And while Beijing focused on Lake Tai, it also encouraged polluting factories to migrate from wealthier areas to the poor hinterland. Meanwhile, ecommerce and cheap airfares allowed new crab farms to spring up around China.

Bathing crabs are likely to remain a barometer of China’s ability to clean up its environment for years to come.

Red tides in Hong Kong flag failings of small-house policy and officials in denial

The report on the causes of recent red tides by the University of Hong Kong (“Seeing red over algal blooms”, July 30), highlights the woeful performance of the government in controlling marine pollution.

A major source of pollution is sewage from New Territories houses. Houses constructed under the small-house policy are exempted from building regulations and often have individual septic tanks.

Many village houses are part of large development plans, masterminded by developers and the Heung Yee Kuk, which are a blatant abuse of the small-house policy. Fake farming activities are often used to “condition” land before submitting building applications. Despite often being part of a coordinated development plan, house applications are treated individually. Planning authorities do not assess the cumulative impact of siting numerous septic tanks close to environmentally sensitive waters.

There are no plans to extend mains sewage to most New Territories villages and the government refuses to consider environmentally friendly sewage treatment plants for villages.

The Environmental Protection Department’s guidance material for constructing septic tanks is, by its own admission, incomplete.

The material is way behind international best practice, offering no protection to coastlines other than where there is a gazetted beach. Rules in the Water Pollution Control Ordinance, designed to protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest, mariculture sites and marinas, are ignored. The Lands Department, which processes individual house applications, uses its own document, which was agreed at a secret meeting between the Environmental Protection and Lands departments in 2009. It further waters down the regulations, for instance, removing the need to assess the suitability of soil conditions for septic tanks in many cases.

Monitoring water quality is haphazard and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is incapable of measuring the minute quantities of pesticides which can be extremely toxic to marine life.

The main function of water quality monitoring appears to be to enable the Environmental Protection and Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation departments to tell everyone that there is no problem. The government lives in a state of denial of serious marine pollution problems.

The unaccountable, incompetent, complacent and uncaring bureaucrats who are in charge of Hong Kong’s environment will not be happy until the land is covered in concrete and the seas filled with plastic, human excrement and chemicals. So much for Hong Kong’s commitment to the Convention on Biodiversity. Compliance is a cosmetic farce.

David Newbery, Sai Kung

Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water

Following is a question by Dr Hon Helena Wong and a reply by the Chief Secretary for Administration, Mrs Carrie Lam, in the Legislative Council today (July 6):


The Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water released at the end of May this year has pointed out that “what we have seen is a collective failure on the part of all stakeholders to guard against the use of non-compliant solder in the plumbing system … every party transferred the duty of supervision to the other(s), resulting in a classic case of buck-passing. Trust was misplaced and in the end it was the residents who suffered the most”. Subsequently at a press conference, the Secretary for Development, Secretary for Transport and Housing as well as Director of Water Supplies apologised to the affected residents for the incidents of excessive lead content in drinking water (the lead-tainted water incidents), but the Chief Secretary for Administration (CS) did not. CS remarked that “even though the inquiry of the Commission has revealed that there has been inadequate alertness among government departments and a flawed regulatory system, it does not necessarily mean that there is any individual public officer who has not abided by the law or has neglected his or her duties and should thus be held personally responsible”. On the other hand, the aforesaid report recommended that “in order to put the minds of all public rental housing (PRH) residents at ease, the Government should undertake to test the drinking water of all PRH estates again using an appropriate sampling protocol that would include the testing of stagnant water as well”. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) given that when the accountability system for principal officials was launched in 2002, the authorities indicated that “principal officials under the accountability system … will be accountable to the Chief Executive for the success or failure of matters falling within their respective portfolios. They will accept total responsibility and in an extreme case, they may have to step down for serious failures relating to their respective portfolios. These include serious failures in policy outcome and serious mishaps in the implementation of the relevant policies”, if the authorities have assessed whether, in the lead-tainted water incidents, there is any serious failure in policy outcome and any serious mishap in the implementation of the relevant policies on the part of the principal officials concerned, and whether such officials should be held responsible and step down; if the authorities have assessed, of the outcome; if the assessment outcome is in the negative, of the justifications, and whether they have reviewed if the accountability system for principal officials has existed in name only and has been reduced to a “buck-passing system for high ranking officials”;

(2) whether it will request CS to apologise to the public for the lead-tainted water incidents; if it will not, of the reasons for that; and

(3) whether the authorities will immediately conduct sample tests on the lead content of the “initial draw-off” taken from all PRH estates, and whether they will make public all the data obtained from the water tests and blood tests conducted in relation to the lead-tainted water incidents; if they will not, of the reasons for that?


Acting President,

Following the briefing by myself, relevant Directors of Bureaux and civil service colleagues for the Legislative Council (LegCo) House Committee on September 1 and October 8 last year on the situation of the lead in drinking water incident at public rental housing (PRH) estates, we will attend the special meeting of the House Committee again on July 11 to brief Members on how the Government will follow up on the recommendations of the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water (the Report). Also, we have already submitted a detailed information paper and, therefore, I will reply concisely to the question raised by Dr Hon Helena Wong today.

For the three parts of the question, my reply is as follows:

(1) As early as October 16, 2015 at the LegCo motion debate on excess lead in drinking water incident at PRH estates, I have already taken the initiative to acknowledge that the incident has clearly reflected the inadequacies of the monitoring system of the Housing Department (HD) and the Water Supplies Department (WSD). At the press conference to make public the Report on May 31 this year, we have accepted the criticisms of the Commission of Inquiry into Excess Lead Found in Drinking Water (the Commission), i.e. the checking system of the two departments, for ensuring that the drinking water in PRH estates does not contain excess lead, has failed to function in reality. The Director of Housing and the Director of Water Supplies have already apologised to the public and the affected residents for the systemic failure and imperfect implementation. The policy areas of housing and water supply are under the purview of the Secretary for Transport and Housing (STH) and the Secretary for Development (SDEV) respectively. As politically appointed principal officials, STH Professor Anthony Cheung and SDEV Paul Chan are responsible for supervising their executive departments to ensure the effective implementation of the policies and the provision of sound service to the public. The two Secretaries of Bureaux did not evade their political responsibility, and apologised for the lead in drinking water incident at PRH estates. Under the supervision of the Directors of Bureaux, the two departments have endeavoured to investigate comprehensively the drinking water situation, implement measures for affected residents and follow up on the various recommendations of the Commission. Hence, I do not agree with the suggestion that “the accountability system for principal officials has existed in name only and has been reduced to a buck-passing system for high ranking officials”.

(2) Under the political appointment system, the Chief Secretary for Administration plays an important role in terms of policy coordination. For the lead in drinking water incident at PRH estates, I convened the first high-level inter-departmental meeting in the morning of July 11 last year (i.e. the next day after HD confirmed and made public the first sample with excess lead) to co-ordinate the follow-up actions of relevant bureaux and departments. So far 20 meetings have been held and a number of measures have been taken promptly. Following the release of the Commission’s Report, I will continue to provide steer for the work of relevant bureaux and departments to ensure that the formulation and implementation of policies will be coordinated properly.

(3) As regards the Commission’s recommendation that the Government should undertake to test the drinking water of all PRH estates again, WSD must first deal with the water sampling protocols. As the experts of the Commission also agreed, there was no universally accepted practice at the moment. The action levels for lead concentration in water tested also vary from place to place. Moreover, water testing is just a means to achieve our objective of ensuring the quality and safety of drinking water. As such, the issue and the follow-up work must be considered in a holistic manner in order to allay public concerns and minimise unnecessary nuisance caused to them.

The Commission also supported our proposal to set up an international expert panel on water safety to provide expert advice to Hong Kong on matters related to water quality standards, regulatory and monitoring regime for water quality, water sampling protocols, etc. The international expert panel as set up by the Development Bureau will convene the first video conferencing meeting today, with a view to putting forward a proposal as soon as possible which is suitable for the actual situation in Hong Kong, and covers the water sampling protocols, appropriate lead content level, and the action levels for lead concentration in water tested. Based on the views of the international expert panel, WSD will follow up as appropriate, including the recommendation of the Commission that the Government should undertake to test the drinking water of all PRH estates again.

As regards making public the results for water tests and blood tests, the Housing Authority (HA) and WSD conducted water sampling tests for all PRH estates concerned between July and November 2015. HA has disseminated to the public the test results for drinking water samples taken from the PRH estates through various channels, including press conferences, press releases and papers issued to LegCo and HA. The Government has also published the overall test results of the blood lead levels of residents in the affected PRH estates as well as the students/staff of the affected schools. The Department of Health and the Hospital Authority have also provided blood test reports and blood lead level data to individuals receiving these tests. As blood lead levels of individuals are personal data, it would not be appropriate to disclose them to the public.

Thank you, Acting President.

Six million Americans have lead-tainted water in homes, schools: report

Some six million Americans have drinking water tainted with higher levels of lead than allowed by US federal guidelines, the USA Today reported on Thursday.

With the nation focused on a major crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead from aging pipes leeched into the municipal water supply, the newspaper launched an investigation which found higher than acceptable lead levels in about 2,000 water systems across the United States.

Tainted water was supplied to hundreds of daycare centers and schools, the report said.

Children are the population most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of lead, a toxin which affects the neurological system and can lead to permanent learning delays and behavioral problems.

Higher than allowed lead levels were found in all 50 US states, USA Today reported.

A sample of water drawn from one elementary school in Maine found lead levels some 42 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency limit of 15 parts per billion, while a preschool in Pennsylvania recorded lead levels 14 times higher than allowed.

An elementary school in Ithaca, New York tested earlier this year showed 5,000 parts per billion of lead — a level so high it met the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s designation for “hazardous waste.”

More than 8,000 children in Flint, economically devastated by shutdowns and layoffs in the car industry, were exposed to lead for more than a year before the tap water contamination was uncovered by citizen activists.

The news report was published as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder prepared to appear Thursday before a congressional oversight committee probing the Flint crisis.

Critics are calling for the resignation of Snyder, who ordered water from the Flint River to be diverted to supply water to the city, in a cost-cutting measure.

Experts believe that the chemical-laced Flint River water corroded lead-bearing pipes, allowing large amounts of the chemical element to leech into the city’s water.

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

Asit K. Biswas says Hong Kong’s poor management of its water resources, from the waste in usage to its inept policy decisions, does not befit a city of its wealth and development

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
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SCMP: Activists to show why incinerator plan should be thrown out

from Howard Winn of the SCMP:

A New Territories group will tomorrow publish a report recommending that the government does not proceed with the controversial Shek Kwu Chau incinerator.

The New Territories Concern Group (NTCG) has taken up the issue of Hong Kong’s waste management and recently sent a delegation to Europe to inspect waste management systems including incinerators, and gasification plants.

The group is chaired by Ronnie Tang, who is also a village representative and the founding chairman of the Pat Heung North Environment Attention Group. The group’s spokesman is Junius Ho kwan yiu, who in addition to being a former president of the Hong Kong Law Society also has the distinction of having deposed Heung Yee Kuk chairman Lau Wong-fat as chairman of the Tuen Mun Rural Committee.

The group’s findings to be released tomorrow will include a recommendation that food waste should be dealt with separately instead of dumping it in landfills as the government does at present.

The suggestion is that food waste, which comprises 42 per cent of the waste sent to landfills and is between 70 and 90 per cent water, should be shredded at source by garburators and handled by Stonecutters Water Treatment plant, which is currently operating at 50 per cent of capacity.

To cope with the residual non-organic waste, which cannot be recycled, the group recommends gasification as a more mature and appropriate technology to meet Hong Kong’s present and future waste management needs. These measures would obviate the need for the incinerator, the report says.

It suggests the establishment of one or more pilot plants to determine the suitability of gasification technology for Hong Kong.

The report also recommends there should be no further delays to territory-wide charging for waste.

The Environmental Protection Department in recent years has stoutly resisted gasification technology and is apparently wedded to incineration. The incinerator is currently on hold as a result of being denied funding by the Legislative Council and because of the appeal which has been lodged against the rejection of the judicial review by the High Court in July. This is unlikely to be heard until June next year.

Those opposed to incineration are hopeful that with opposition within Legco, together with the efforts of lobbying groups such as the NTCG, it will be possible to redirect government policies in dealing with waste.

22 Nov 2013

More information on potential alternatives to sludge treatment

Currently, a new sludge treatment plant is being built in Tuen Mun, and it is quite likely that a large amount of sludge treated will be incinerated and deposited into ash lagoons in the nearby area of Tsang Tsui. Not more than once, though, has researchers suggested that instead of incineration, the sludge treated could be recycled for a variety of purposes. Here is a presentation made in 2001 by 3 researchers of the Baptist University of Hong Kong, explaining the possibility of such an alternative.

Sludge Treatment in Hong Kong

In the late 90’s, the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) began to conduct studies into improving sludge treatment in Hong Kong, and they sped up progress in 2009 when it became clear that landfill space for sludge was on the verge of exhaustion. The result was the approval of a project to build a sludge treatment plant in Tuen Mun, and it would involve incineration in order to reduce the volume of the waste. Despite suggestions for the recycling of incineration ash, it seems that the ash will still be returned to landfills.

The location plan for the sludge treatment plant in Tuen Mun

The 2009 proposal can be found here.