One country, two “water treatment” systems

Guest post by chinadialogue intern Yung Hiu Yan Emily

Last year, Guangdong Province in south China introduced stricter regulations on water quality in the Dong River, where Hong Kong gets much of its water. But many say the quality is still not up to standard.

It’s always a hard task for the Hong Kong government to meet the demands of the region’s rapidly growing population – not least when it comes to water supply. In the 1960s, the colonial government reached an agreement with Guangdong that Hong Kong would buy water from the southern Chinese region every year.

But water on the mainland is known to be polluted to various degrees. So how can the Hong Kong government guarantee clean water for its citizens?

The Dong River is one of the four major river systems of south China’s Pearl River Basin. The water from this source is classed as “slightly contaminated”. One of the biggest threats to Dong river quality comes from nonpoint source and heavy metal pollution caused by mining, especially for rare-earth metals.Industrial pig farming and improper handling of waste exacerbate the problems.

Due to occasional water shortages, Guangdong has also started a major project to divert the Xijing River in 2010 in order to stabilize water supply for both Guangdong and Hong Kong citizens. Water quality of Xijing has been affected by local industries and domestic sewage, containing various kinds of pollutants like heavy metal, E.coli and fluoride.

Although the source of water used by Hong Kong and many Guangdong cities is the same, the quality of the final product differs. This can be explained by the different standards adopted on either side of the border. While Hong Kong follows the European Union model, the mainland’s regulations haven’t been modified since they first arrived in 1985 (the new 2006 regulations will be enforced from July 1 this year).

In order to reach EU standards, the “raw water” needs to go through a series of purifying processes. It is first transported to Shenzhen, a city just next to Hong Kong, for bio-nitrification. Then the water passes through a 10-step filtration and purification process, as well as laboratory tests. At the same time, the law restricts the materials that can be used for water pipes so as to reduce chances of contamination. With a smaller population size and land area, a simpler economic structure, and sound infrastructure and law, water management in Hong Kong is certainly much easier than on mainland China.

Image by Hong Kong Water Supplies Department

Regardless of the challenges the mainland contends with, its 2006 regulations aim to pull up standards to world-class levels. There will be 106 indices, far above the old number of 35. One important obstacle is rooted in the law itself, especially enforcement problems commonly seen in China. Under the current mining code, for example, starting proceedings against illegal mining is valid only if the value of the mine is above a certain level.  Whether the new regulation can be put into effect successfully depends on the law itself and the efforts of the law enforcement agencies.