A Watershed: The Erosion of HK’s Ecological Security

The 1984 Joint Declaration laid out Hong Kong’s future as a Special Administrative Region of the PRC, governed under the One Country, Two Systems policy, post-1997, and retaining a high degree of autonomy. The agreement can be seen as a watershed, after which, Hong Kong became increasingly dependent on Mainland Chinese water resources, surrendering its hard-won self-sufficiency as it submitted to a process of ‘reunification through water’ (Cheung, 2014). Often inaccurately described as a city-state, Hong Kong’s overreliance on Mainland water today has come to undermine its credentials as an ‘ecologically secure premium enclave’ (Lee, 2013: 906), threatening its autonomy as a so-called global city separate from the Chinese Mainland. Water is thereby coming to highlight the ecological and political dependence of Hong Kong on the Mainland.

Water from the Dongjiang is routed through Dongguan and Shenzhen to HK , HKWSD

The expensive consolidation of Hong Kong’s local water supply capacity up to the 1980s had resulted in water becoming a significant ‘bulk item’ in the city’s annual budget (Lee, 2013: 913). Having acknowledged in 1984 that Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese control by 1997, there was little reason for the British authorities to turn down the offer of cheaper water from the Mainland. In 1985 Chinese water supply to Hong Kong accordingly came to exceed to total local supply (Lee, 2014: 916). Observing Hong Kong’s strategic importance for China’s economy, Chinese officials were eager to offer cheap Dongjiang water in order to leverage power over the city in what has been described as an explicitly ‘bio-political’ effort (Cheung, 2014: 1013). The favourable prices offered to Hong Kong ensured that over the years the city would become increasingly dependent on Mainland supplies, by 2017 relying on China for 80% of its water supply.

The importance of Dongjiang water to HK

However, the political and economic backdrop to this supply arrangement has changed drastically with the emergent economic importance of cities such as Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou across the border from Hong Kong in the Pearl River Delta. With these cities also relying on Dongjiang water, Hong Kong’s bargaining power has drastically shrunk (Lee, 2013: 915). It is within this context that water supply arrangements have significantly eroded Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy. The city is now locked into a ‘package lump sum deal’ which sees the government pay for a set annual supply ceiling, regardless of whether or not it consumes that much water. HK now pays 3.3 times more for Dongjiang water than the adjacent cities of Shenzhen or Dongguan, despite using less water (Civic Exchange, 2017: 4). HK now pays HK$4.22 billion annually, up from HK$2.5 billion in 2008. A report by the Civic Exchange thinktank in 2017, entitled ‘The Illusion of Plenty’, details how domestic water rates have remained unchanged since 1995, resulting in Hong Kong households having some of the cheapest water bills in the world, whilst the Water Supplies Department runs an annual budget deficit of HK$1 billion (2017: 7). If household bills were to be brought in line with actual supply costs, household water bills would likely more than double.

Opposing tariff increases which may adversely impact poorer households, the local government has approved the construction of the Tseun Kwan O desalination plant, a HK$7.7 billion project that will meet only 5% of potable water demand when it opens. Increasing expenditure on water supply seems counterintuitive given Hong Kong’s wasteful attitude towards the resource. The HKWSD’s failure to adopt new technologies and properly maintain pipes allows nearly a third of freshwater supplies to be unaccounted for, representing a HK$1.35 billion annual revenue hit (Civic Exchange, 2017: 5). Moreover, between 1998 and 2015, per capita daily water consumption in Hong Kong rose from 190 to 220 litres, whilst Singapore’s consumption decreased from 160 to 150 litres.

A water-saving campaign that might not quite save the day

We should, however, be cautious to compare Hong Kong with an independent city-state like Singapore. Hong Kong’s depleted ecological security is emblematic of its changing political identity, and the erosion of the kind of independence held by Singapore. China has leveraged water from the Dongjiang as a tool to reintegrate Hong Kong with the Mainland, as a subordinate. This process, exacerbated by the (possibly willing) mismanagement of local water supplies, has undermined Hong Kong’s aspirations as an ecologically secure global city, reshaping Hong Kong’s identity as an international financial hub that is ultimately dependent on Mainland China.

References:

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

Civic Exchange, ‘The Illusion of Plenty: Hong Kong’s Water Security, Working Towards Regional Water Harmony’, 2017, available at: https://civic-exchange.org/report/water2017/

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

Feature Image: Pipes carrying water from China, Edward Wong, available at: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3010218/lawmakers-endorse-plan-hk77-billion-desalination

Water from the Dongjiang is routed through Dongguan and Shenzhen to HK , HKWSD, available at: https://www.wsd.gov.hk/en/core-businesses/water-resources/dongjiang-water/index.html

4 thoughts on “A Watershed: The Erosion of HK’s Ecological Security

  1. Hi, it’s fascinating to read about the interconnectedness of water provision with political factors. I was quite surprised to learn that HK struggles with water provision. I assumed that HK’s geographical position at sea would offer more opportunities for water generation, partly through desalination plants that you mentioned. I know the same phenomenon from Cape Town though, where desalination plants are too expensive to establish and also a catalyst for environmental degradation as they have to be situated close to the sea.

    I was wondering whether you know the future strategy of HK to provide water? Do they plan to further rely on Mainland China, or do they try to invest in new technologies, including desalination plants, to lessen their reliance on Mainland China?

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  2. Hi there, thanks for your comment. From the research I conducted, it appears that Hong Kong has reached a turning point in the last decade, as water from across the border in Mainland China becomes more sought-after from prospering industrial cities such as Guangzhou, Dongguan and Shenzhen. So, after decades of increased reliance on CHinese supplies, Hong Kong is now having to act as a ‘good partner’ in sharing an increasingly limited water supply in Guangdong Province. As a result, it looks like the city is revisiting old strategies to consolidate local supplies, for example by investing once more in desalination projects. I think Hong Kong is a great case study for the way it demonstrated the material politics attached to a vital resource like water. The negotiation of political power over Hong Kong, firstly between British colonial rule and the Mainland, and now as a Special Administrative Region under ‘One Country, Two Systems’ has led to a strange trajectory where its ecological security, or lack thereof, has become a bargaining chip in much larger political games.

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  3. Hi ! Thank you for this enlightening post ! I had no idea about these water issues in Hong Kong and even less than this was a major leverage for Chine to compel Hong Kong once and for all (maybe not if they find a solution). This is really interesting to learn more about political strategies based upon access to necessary resources such as water. This is really sad and frustrating that such an essential and vital element is traded and wasted to be used as a political leverage to serve personal interests, while million of people are currently living without access to safe water or are paying high prices to get it…

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  4. Yes, it’s a really sobering picture to see that a resource essential to human life is manipulated for political gain. One thing I find interesting though, is Hong Kong’s strangely cheap water billing system for residents. Whilst cheap water prices seem to encourage wastage, the low prices could have a silver lining in ensuring that the city’s poorer residents can afford access to relatively safe water supplied.

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