Building Out Hong Kong's Water Supply
Author’s Note: If you want to watch the video, you can go here
Man, that thumbnail looks terrible.
I wrote this video long before any current developments began in Hong Kong. I had gone for a jog along one of Hong Kong’s massive reservoirs and had wondered what on earth got them to figure to try and build this. It must have cost a fortune. And as it turns out, it did. So much that the government could not afford to continue doing it.
It would be easy to look back and nit pick them for not making a “long term decision”. But I appreciate the difficult choice that they faced. Their government budget was swelling up from providing public housing and healthcare to the people. Yet at the same time, the government believed that raising taxes and fees would have discouraged the economy and gutted its thriving trading business.
At the same time, relations with China were warming. Reading the books from back in the day, everyone including the British said, “Hong Kong is China.” And China was making an effort to quell fears. Zhou Enlai personally made the Dongjiang water deal happen, over the grumblings of the provincial governor. With such an economically cheap offering - one in line with the warming political climate - who would turn down such a deal?
Governance is tough. You won’t find me doing it anytime soon.
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Here we are going to talk about Hong Kong’s water supply. The semi-autonomous city is highly dependent on water supplied to it today from the Mainland. This allows Chinese hardliners to advocate for its use as leverage in snuffing out any potential independence movement.
The Hong Kong Water Situation
The British received control of Hong Kong island from the Qing Dynasty in 1842 at the end of the First Opium War. It expanded those territories with the Kowloon peninsula after the Second Opium War in 1860 and then finally in 1898 with the 99-year lease of the New Territories. The area gets a lot of rain — about 2,225 mm — but it comes at a very specific time, mostly in spring and summer. And since there is not a lot of land in Hong Kong, storing that water for the autumn and winter is difficult. Hong Kong sits on solid granite, so all the rain flows to the sea and does not collect into underground reservoirs for drilling.
For the British, Hong Kong represented a gateway to the Chinese market and an important military base. The Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China which succeeded it were not super excited about the British being around at their borders but dealt with it — though it seemed like Chiang Kai-shek had started thinking about reasserting Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong at the end of WW2. (I think there’s an intriguing discussion to be had about the future of China if the KMT had won the Civil War — the two parties had similar agendas for the revitalization of China) They had little means of pushing the British around though so Hong Kong stayed in British hands.
This changed at the conclusion of World War II and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949. That same month, the Communists marched an army right up to the Hong Kong-Chinese border. The British, still reeling from the horror of World War II, were in absolutely no position to stop them. Hong Kong continued on as a colony for absolutely no reason other than that the CPC decided not to invade that month. Since then and with the burgeoning Cold War, the British realized that Hong Kong was “poised at the edge of a volcano”. For years thereafter, every Hong Konger knew that China would not even need a full army to take over Hong Kong. Colonial Hong Kong exists because Communist China allowed it to. The colonial government adjusted then to signal to the Chinese government that it can capably deal with Hong Kong's massive population of Chinese refugees and maintain the city-state’s internal order.
Why didn’t China march in and take over? Who knows really, but it seems to be for two big reasons. During the Korean War, they were able to access goods for their army despite a massive embargo through Hong Kong. And secondly, the Chinese saw Hong Kong as their window to the rest of the world after the Sino-Soviet split cut them off from Soviet technology and financial aid. So a tacit deal was struck — the British do not harm Chinese interests and the Chinese do not invade.
For a long time, the population of Hong Kong had been dependent on a number of reservoirs built within the territory. But the population exploded with the advent of World War II, the Chinese Civil War, and a massive famine from 1958-61. The infrastructure was struggling to keep up with all that growth. By the end of the 1950s, the precarious water supply made the colony vulnerable to any disruption … which is exactly what happened. There was a drought in the spring of 1959 that hit the colony’s ability to meet the population’s needs. It was then that Hong Kongers within the pro-Chinese circle suggested to the Hong Kong Governor at the time Sir Robert Black that the Guangdong government might be able to channel excess water from its system to Hong Kong. The Guangdong government was building the reservoir anyway so why not help out Hong Kong?
To be honest, the Guangdong government was probably not that charitable. Chinese premier Zhou Enlai had to order the Guangdong government to enter negotiations with Hong Kong. The official offer was extended in January 1960. It was offered with no duress or pressure — the British can say yes or no.
Black was an experienced governor — he had previously been the governor of Singapore — and he was more than aware of the risks. Many Hong Kongers did not trust the Communists for good reason and did not want to be potentially held hostage by Chinese water supplies being turned off also for good reason. They very well knew the risks. But Black also needed to provide for his people — political stability was the utmost concern for his administration — and he judged that tapping Chinese supply would be the fastest way to do that. So in the end after consultation with the government back home in Britain he decided that he would strike an agreement but at the same time develop independent water supplies to prevent the Chinese from strangling them. He refused to take the water free of charge and insisted on a reasonable price so to avoid making PR for the Communists. And at the same time, the water agreement was signed by low-level officials and not in the name of the government. This way, the Chinese would not see this as something that guided official policy in the future nor could they use it for propaganda purposes. And then finally, they publicized the water agreement through press releases — again so to co-opt the impact of potential propaganda from the Communist side. The water started flowing. Black then got to work at building out independent water supplies.
The Situation Worsens
But things were getting worse drought-wise. In 1962, Hong Kong had one of its worst droughts in history. For 2 years, Hong Kong received less than half the amount of rain it usually got. The drought hit everyone in the South China region and China could not provide any more water to Hong Kong. Restrictions were imposed until May 1964. As the decade rolled on into 1967, these restrictions became incredibly damaging politically. Riots would happen as leftists spurred on by the Cultural Revolution would label water restrictions of any kind ‘a dirty political scheme’ aimed at suppressing the ‘glorious struggle against British persecution’. The government would have to suppress nearly 200 riots that had sprung up for these and other political reasons, arresting 5,000 people. The 1967 riots in particular would deeply shaken the colonial Hong Kong government. It was the closest that the Chinese came to retaking the city.
The British worked hard to build out additional reservoirs and other independent water supplies. Plover Cove was completed 9 years later in 1968 and it held 3x the amount of water as all the other reservoirs in the colony. The government estimated that with this reservoir they would be able to supply water right into the early 70s without any need from China’s supplies. Two more reservoirs would be built — High Island and Lok On Pai — and government also mulled some desalination schemes, powered by nuclear energy, that did not get developed. In addition, Hong Kong created new systems which used seawater to flush its toilets, conserving freshwater only for those who needed it. By 1979, it was determined that China would only need to supply some 27% of Hong Kong’s water supply — which is actually pretty independent. Daily supply without Chinese help could be provided by Plover Cove alone … with two huge caveats.
## Problem Number One: Money
The first caveat is that the costs spent were immense. Plover Cove cost HK $541 million, nearly a fourth of the colony’s total spending in 1968-69. Add to it the other reservoirs such as High Island (30% of the annual budget) and Lok On Pai desalination plant as well as the operational costs of running the reservoirs and now you got some issues. Remember, the government has to also provide for education expenses, law/order, medicine and public housing while maintaining the super low tax rate that made it such a business-friendly place. As compared to building something like Plover Cove, which required people to literally dam the ocean and fill it with rainwater — building a pipeline to channel river water from China to Hong Kong seemed so much cheaper.
And then China began opening up. Their open-door policy in 1979 greatly improved relations on the border. It seemed like China was now the United Kingdom's best friend. Fiscal critics began blasting the colonial government. Why on earth are they wasting so much money (the waterworks department ran a $28 million deficit due to the fuel costs of desalinization in 1981-82) when you can get cheap water from a now-friendly China?
Problem Number 2
The second caveat matters much … much more. It has to do with the locations of the reservoirs. All those local reservoirs serving Hong Kong which included Plover Cove and High Island were located in the New Territories and if you recall correctly, the British leased that particular area from China for only 99 years — the guy signing the treaty had thought that 99 years would be “as good as forever” but nah. Those years would be up in 1997 and China had no intention to renew. 99% of all the local water capacity was located within the New Territories and once reclaimed by the Chinese the water supply card can be exercised at will.
So the water situation in 1979 when the first negotiations on the Handover began was the colonial Hong Kong government did significantly depend on Chinese water but it had built significant countermeasures to deal with it. But once it became clear that the New Territories would be reclaimed, the rest of Hong Kong had to go. And after the Declaration was signed, there seemed to be no more need to build independent water supplies right? Thus, Hong Kong water supplies began to be entirely subsumed by China. The Joint Declaration was signed in 1984. A year later, China supplied over 50% of Hong Kong water consumption. 6 years later, that became 80%. The Dongjiang river now dominates Hong Kong water supply system. It is a core point of any Chinese official regarding Hong Kong independence that China exercises massive control over the issue. The water (and food) supply will be cut off. The funny thing though about Hong Kong today is that the nearby Shenzhen and Guangdong urban areas now need their own water too. Hong Kong is no longer privileged to receive cheap water from the Dongjiang and has to again invest in building out its own water supplies.
The crucial “error” if you want to call it that was that the border between Hong Kong and China was a political one and not a geographic one. It’s not a mountain range and not an ocean so it did not brook much protection from any potential occupation. Hong Kong’s geography and rapid urbanization meant that it did not have any land for storing its own water or growing its own food. China needed British Hong Kong at the time to negotiate with the outside world for 150 years but soon after its opening-up, that need ended and with that, Hong Kong could not be independent.