Too Dirty to Swim

Lido Beach, Tsuen Wan

Lido Beach

Tsuen Wan, west of Kowloon, is known more as an industrial and commercial hub than as a seaside getaway. But until the early 1990s, the district’s seven sandy beaches, which stretch out along the Rambler Channel, were among the most popular in Hong Kong. As pollution from raw sewage worsened in the 1990s and 2000s, however, the beaches was closed for swimming.

Now, thanks to sewage improvement works, they may finally reopen within two years. Officials say water quality at the beaches is improving after work to channel and treat the waste, and they could be fit for use again by the summer of 2011.

The HK$1 billion scheme, which began early this decade, includes new trunk and branch sewers and a treatment plant at Sham Tseng, which was one of the first in Hong Kong to disinfect waste through ultraviolet radiation.

“Twenty years ago there were no sewage treatment facilities, no sewage works whatsoever in the area,” said Elvis Au Wai-kwong, assistant director of the Environmental Protection Department’s water policy division. “But the population of the area around the beaches increased by 42 per cent after 1996, from 26,000 to around 37,000.”

He said that in Sham Tseng village, known for its roast goose restaurants, “all kinds of things were happening. Septic tanks were not well maintained. Some of the village’s restaurants would discharge their waste right into the nullah. It was quite smelly.”

Au said people in the area had been very co-operative because they could see the benefit. “Once the water is improved this will be quite a beautiful place to live.”

Rambler Channel

Rambler Channel

Li Kwan-yau, 59, who learned to swim at Lido and Ting Kau in the mid-1960s, said the beaches’ popularity peaked in the mid-1970s, when changing rooms, snack bars and lifesaving facilities were built. Then, over the next two decades as pollution worsened, Li watched as the public looked elsewhere for places to swim.

“Now, if people in Tsuen Wan want to go to swimming, they’ll go to the swimming pool in the town centre, or the beaches at Sai Kung or on Hong Kong Island,” he said. “I’d say that everything in Tsuen Wan is better than before — except the water.”

So far, 51 of Sham Tseng’s 400 village houses have been connected to new sewers, a number that Au hopes will increase to 250 by next year.

By summer 2011, all but a few dozen houses will be connected and any remaining sewage that flows into the nullah will be intercepted by a local disinfection chamber.

“Right now, just 40 per cent of the population in the area is connected to the new sewers, but we’ve already had some amazing results,” Au said. “Since 2005, the E coli count at some beaches, like Lido and Casam, has declined by more than 50 per cent.”

The department’s latest beach water quality results show that the level of E coli bacteria per 100 millilitres of water at many beaches is now comparable to what it was in the mid-1990s. But the new facilities are only part of the story.

At least half of the pollution at Tsuen Wan’s beaches is carried north by currents from Victoria Harbour, where another initiative to improve water quality, the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, is still under way.

Over the past decade, the government has begun to intercept the sewage along the waterfronts of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, and provide chemical-enhanced primary treatment without disinfection. Now, it is working on a second stage of treatment to add disinfectant to the treated sewage, but this will take years to be effective.

Even in the 1960s and 1970s, Li remembers, the water was far from perfect. “The water was dirty and there was a lot of rubbish floating around. Sometimes, it was the colour of milk tea. You couldn’t see anything. Most people did breaststroke to keep their heads above the water, but I didn’t like breaststroke. I thought it looked girly. Freestyle was a lot tougher-looking, so that’s what I did. Back then, we lived in a very tough environment, so our immune systems were very tough. The beach was always crowded. It was the cheapest form of entertainment.”

Lido Beach, Tsuen Wan

Lido Beach

Ting Kau Beach

Ting Kau Beach

Although it no longer provides lifesaving services at the beaches, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department continues to maintain them. Sand is raked, rubbish is collected and, on some beaches, changing rooms are still open and showers operate. Lido Beach, which has views of the Ting Kau and Tsing Ma bridges, continues to attract a sizable crowd each weekend.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, nearly 150 people were at the beach, and 20 to 30 people were swimming, despite banners and recorded announcements warning them not to enter the water.

“People don’t really care about the warnings,” said an employee in the beach manager’s office who declined to be named. “The E coli levels are over the official standard, but you can’t stop people from going in the water. To be honest, I sometimes go in for a dip myself.”

Cat Shum, 27, was lying on a towel beneath a blue umbrella, listing to hip hop music on a portable stereo. “It’s beautiful and very comfortable. I’m just here to sunbathe, though, not to swim. It upsets me a bit that we’re told not to go in the water,” she said, as her boyfriend, 30-year-old Joe Mak, emerged from the water. He stopped under the umbrella to towel himself dry.

“I’ve been living in Sham Tseng my whole life,” he said. “Everybody used to come to the beach here but now they go to the Gold Coast in Tuen Mun. I’m not afraid of the warning. If there really is a problem, they should prevent people from going onto the beach altogether.”

At Ting Kau Beach, Chichi Yip, 35, emerged from the water with her children and husband. She has lived in the adjacent village most of her life.

“The people in the village still swim in the water, especially the old people, who go in the morning. If I think about it, the water is actually a lot better than it was a few years ago. I hope it keeps improving.”

Another version of this story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on Sunday, September 27, 2009.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday October 02 2009at 04:10 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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