Water, water, everywhere….?

I tend to take water for granted. Lots of people do and it is particularly easy to do so in a place where it is humid and rains a lot.  But this complacency is not a good thing. Water matters hugely. It connects us in ways we might not even imagine.  It is a real problem when there isn’t enough.  It is a real problem when the water we do have can’t help us to meet our needs.  According to Water.Org more than 780 Million (780,000,000) people worldwide, do not have access to clean water.

Tolo Harbour near Plover Cove Reservoir.

Tolo Harbour near Plover Cove Reservoir. This is an ingenious, but unfortunately inadequate solution to some of Hong Kong’s water storage issues as the reservoir is reclaimed from the sea.

People who live in Hong Kong are lucky. According to the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department, Hong Kong has safe drinking water.  At least for the present.  While there are reservoirs and catchments for water, the fact is, the city imports the majority of its water from mainland China, from Guangdong.  Some estimates put this somewhere between 70% to 80% of the city’s total annual usage.  The current agreement that guarantees Hong Kong’s water levels lasts until 2014, when it will then have to be renegotiated.  After 2014, the supply for the city might not be so secure. Our new terms may resemble those of other cities in the Pearl River Delta region, that draw from the same watershed.  Currently those other cities do not have guaranteed supplies and when there is drought, as there was in 2010, they go without. Indeed there is some evidence that this part of the world, as a result of urbanisation, is getting drier (see Larson, 2008). If this is the case there will most likely be shortages. Moreover, as the industry in the region expands, the likelihood that the water supply will become polluted and therefore more expensive to process or unpotable also increases.

Of course water supply issues, while perhaps forgotten, have long been a feature of Hong Kong.  Until 1960 Hong Kong supplied its own water. The intense seasonality of the rainfall ment that there were periods of overabundance, and times where there was not enough.  In November of 1960, the British signed an agreement with the Chinese Government whereby water would be supplied from the mainland to a series of reservoirs that were built to store water in the colony.  Up to 5000 million gallons would be supplied each year, provided annual rain levels were more than 63 inches. This water was to be delivered durring the dry season, thereby making year round supply more likely.

That worked for the first year or so, but in the period between November 1962 and December 1963 rainfall was just under 39 inches, which ment that Chinese supplies were cut off. In Hong Kong the result was water rationing. At its worst, people were given access to running water for four hours every four days. Old timers tell stories of filling their bathtubs as a way to store water durring this period.  Of course you had to find other means for storage if you had no bath tub, as was the case for most of the new immigrants from the mainland, shanty town dwellers, and other low income people in the city.  Eventually, and in cooperation with the Chinese, a series of alternative water sources from further within the mainland were found, and additional reservoirs, including the ingenious Plover Cove Reservoir, were built.  But, this period of water shortage further underlined for the British the difficulty that keeping Hong Kong as a colony posed and which Margaret Thatcher later acted upon when she gave it back.

Two International Finance Centre

Although water is inexpensive and safe, each year Hong Kongers buy enough bottled water to fill this building ~ more than 275 million liters.

Despite the hardships of this period of water shortage, the SAR has not learned to conserve water.  The City has some of the highest rates of water usage per capita.  Hong Kong uses at a rate that is nearly double that of London.  When you consider that unlike most other parts of the world Hong Kong has limited agricultural or industrial water use, the finger points directly at domestic users. Water consumption rates go up further if you also consider the imported bottled water that is so popular in the city, which in turn has a negative impact on ocean water quality due to plastic waste.  China Water Risk estimates that in Hong Kong bottled water is consumed at a yearly rate that would fill the volume of the IFC building, currently the 10th tallest building in the world.

Additionally, because Hong Kong does not have much agriculture it is also a significant user of virtual water. Virtual water is the water required to produce a good.  It takes, for example, 1395 liters of water to produce the equivalent of a quarter of a pound of hamburger meat. Rice, a common food item in the SAR, thought not as water intensive as beef, takes about 510 liters of water for each 150 grams (about 5 oz). China Water Risk estimates that the virtual water contained in just the meat imported from mainland China to Hong Kong is over 1.58 billion meters cubed (multiply this by 1000 to get the number of liters, this is the equivalent to about 57 thousand IFC’s). What is more, a considerable proportion of the virtual water consumed in Hong Kong through foods imported from China come from rural areas in northern regions where water is scarce and wages are particularly low (Chinese government statistics for 2011 indicate rural anual per capita income is 6977 RMB, or just about US$1130).

To some degree, Hong Kong is contributing to China’s water crises through its poor use practices.   If the SAR is able to negotiate a continued guarantee after 2014, there will be limited incentive to conserve, though food prices will continue to increase.  If however, the SAR cannot renegotiate such benefit, then as pollution and demand both increase so is the likelihood that there will be shortage in terms of real water supply. Both scenarios will affect the poor on the mainland and in the SAR first and most harshly. 


The average annual rainfall for Hong Kong is about 94 inches. For comparison’s sake, the average annual rainfall in New Orleans, LA is just over 64 inches.  You can find the rainfall figures for US cities via a pretty groovy site called Find the Data.

The Hong Kong Observatory also has a really useful website with probably more information that you really need.  There is a warning, if you visit too often you will become a bit of a weather nerd, as I have.

China Water Risk has some interesting information about water usage in Hong Kong and makes the point that Hong Kongers are pretty wasteful when it comes to water.

Information about the water supply in Hong Kong in the 1960’s and the drought is from Rose, J. 1966. Hong Kong’s Water-Supply Problem and China’s Contribution to Its Solution.  Geographical Review, 56(3):432-437.

For more on the links between plastic and ocean water quality see Ocean Recovery’s web site here.

How to reference this post in non-web publications. If you would like to cite this post I suggest the following format:

Blake, M (2013) Water, water, everywhere…? https://geofoodie.org/2013/04/18/water-water-everywhere/ ‎‎Geofoodie.org 18 April 2013 (Accessed: XX/XX/20XX)