The politics of air quality in Hong Kong highlight the significance of political ecology to our understanding of urban power dynamics and their implications for a city’s identity. The story of the evolution of Hong Kong’s water supply under British administration in the twentieth century is an allegory for the negotiation of power between British and Chinese interests from the 1960s onwards.
Despite its warm, wet climate, Hong Kong’s high population density has always made self-sufficiency in water supply a challenge, and today the government’s Water Supplies Department describes a problem of ‘inadequate and unreliable local yield’. Hong Kong experienced droughts in 1959 and the early 1960s, which were exacerbated by poorly developed local supply and storage infrastructure and a rapidly growing population. The drought asserted to the administration of the British Crown Colony the alarming precarity of the flourishing economic centre in light of its lack of water self-sufficiency, creating a dilemma which can now be seen to showcase the importance of ‘urban ecological security’ (Hodson and Marvin, 2009).
Aware of Hong Kong’s ‘strategic significance’, the Chinese government decided to offer to supply water to the city to relieve the drought, an offer which Premier Zhou Enlai perceptively recognised ‘should be taken as a political task’ (Cheung, 2014: 1014). In 1960, Hong Kong had accepted an offer to receive 22.7 million cubic metres of water from Shenzhen annually, whilst starting work on the Plover Cove Reservoir in the HK New Territories to strengthen local water supply and storage capacity (Lee, 2013: 909). British reluctance to accept further supplies from across the border were strained as the drought worsened to the point that, in 1963, running water was available for only 4 hours every 4 days. So, in 1964, Hong Kong’s British administration cautiously entered into the Dongshen Water Supply Scheme to alleviate shortages in the medium term. The colonial government, still preoccupied with ensuring Hong Kong’s independence from China through water security, simultaneously pledged to develop ‘all local natural resources’ for future water supply and storage (Lee, 2013: 910).
The authorities’ caution in accepting Chinese water thereby brought on a period of unprecedented investment in local water infrastructure, in defiance of the PRC’s ‘attempt to gain political influence’ through water (Cheung, 2014: 1015). The effort comprised three major schemes: the Plover Cove and High Island Reservoirs and the Lok On Pai desalination plant. Taking advantage of Hong Kong’s mountainous geography with its numerous coves and harbours, the two reservoirs drastically increased local catchment and storage capacity, which reached 21 times the total of the early post-war period, a total of 586 million cubic metres (Lee, 2013: 913). Investment in desalination, a costly and energy intensive means of water production, reflected the government’s seriousness in pursuing water security. By 1975, the Lok On Pai desalter became the largest in the world, producing 182,000cm per day, and by 1979 the government asserted that the new infrastructure meant Hong Kong could meet demand for ‘some time to come’ (HKWSD in Lee, 2013: 913).
This period in Hong Kong’s history was a demonstration of aspirations towards an urban ecological security that would offer stability for a blossoming global city: one of Asia’s financial hubs. But the premature decommissioning of the Lok On Pai desalter in 1981 was a sign of things to come, as Britain and China signed the 1984 Joint Declaration which established Hong Kong’s future as a Special Administrative Region of the PRC. These political changes paved the way for a shift in Hong Kong’s water management, which soon began to increasingly rely on the provision of water from the Mainland.
Cheung, Siu-Kaung, ‘Reunification through Water and Food: The Other Battle for Lives and Bodies in China’s Hong Kong Policy’, The China Quarterly, 2014, p. 1012-1032
Hodson and Marvin, ‘urban ecological security’: a new paradigm? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2009, 33.1, p.193-215
Lee, Nelson L., ‘The Changing Nature of Border, Scale, and the Production of Hong Kong’s Water Supply System since 1959’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 38.3, 2014, p. 903-921
Contemporary map of catchment areas and reservoirs in Hong Kong, showing Plover Cove (northeast) and High Island (east) reservoirs, HKWSD: https://www.wsd.gov.hk/en/core-businesses/water-resources/local-yield/index.html#&gid=1&pid=1
Satellite image of the Lok On Pai desalination plant, Industrial History HK: https://industrialhistoryhk.org/lok-pai-desalting-plant-aerial-photos-1973-1982-2013/