In Hong Kong, Cleaner Water, Dirtier Air

Ronnie Wong’s swimming career began with a dive into Victoria Harbour. In 1968, the 16-year-old competitive swimmer joined hundreds of other men and women in a 1.5-kilometre race from the Star Ferry pier in Tsim Sha Tsui to Queen’s Pier in Central.

“The moment I jumped in the water, I didn’t care about anything, just to head towards City Hall as fast as I could,” says Wong. He won the race. He won the following two years as well.

But the race, which had been launched in 1912, soon came to an end. By 1978, the harbour had become so polluted that the race was cancelled. In its final decade, Wong remembers the swim was as much of an obstacle course as it was a race. “The water was so dirty you would bump into a dead chicken or a piece of wood,” he says.

Harbour pollution continued to worsen in the 1980s. In 1988, fewer than half the city’s beaches were clean enough to swim. Locally-raised fish and oysters were so toxic the public was warned not to eat them. The “fragrant harbour,” as Hong Kong is known in Chinese, became notorious for the sickening stench of its waters.

Recently, however, things have begun to change. In the mid-2000s, Wong, who competed twice at the Olympics and is now the secretary of the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association, went diving in the harbour’s waters and noticed they seemed cleaner than before. “Before, you couldn’t even see a few feet in front of you, but now you can see three to four metres away,” he says.

Government data confirmed Wong’s observations. Between 1999 and 2009, levels of E. coli bacteria in the waters near Central declined from 9,600 units per 100 millilitres of water to 3,900. Much of that improvement came last year alone, when the harbour’s overall E. coli levels dropped by more than 57 percent.

Credit for the decline goes to sewage treatment. Over the past 20 years, Hong Kong’s government has built a network of underground pipes that will eventually divert 1.7 million cubic metres of sewage to a new sewage treatment plant on Stonecutters Island, where it will be filtered, disinfected and pumped back out to sea.

As Hong Kong’s water quality has improved, however, its air quality has declined to the point where environmentalists and scientists are raising the spectre of a public health crisis. Visibility, a key indicator of air pollution, has declined dramatically in recent years. Last year, the total number of hours with visibility lower than eight kilometres reached 1,225 — equivalent to 51 entire days — a rate more than double the historic average.

That decline in air quality is proving deadly: a new study released last month by researchers at the University of Hong Kong revealed a 1.13 percent increase in natural causes of death for for every less of 6.5 kilometres in visibility, suggesting that more and more people in Hong Kong are being killed by the very air they breathe.

The public is growing increasingly concerned. A new survey released last month by the Sham Shui Po District Council, in collaboration with the Clean Air Network, showed that 73 percent of residents in Sham Shui Po believe that air pollution is making them less healthy.

All of this raises a troubling question: if Hong Kong can clean up its polluted water, what is stopping it from improving its increasingly toxic air?

It certainly isn’t for lack of money spent. Earlier this year, a team of local journalists crunched the numbers and found that the Hong Kong government and private businesses have spent HK$29 billion on fighting air pollution over the past ten years, over which time roadside air quality has become five times worse, with pollution reaching hazardous levels on 100 days last year, according to data from the Environmental Protection Department.

By contrast, the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS), which is responsible for the harbour’s improving water quality, has cost HK$15 billion since its launch in 1992.

“It started with Chris Patten,” says former legislative councillor Christine Loh, who now runs the public policy think-tank Civic Exchange. “In his first policy address, he highlighted the fact that Victoria Harbour didn’t have a sewage treatment system. That came as a shock to many people. But to put it crudely, the harbour was a public toilet.”

The previous colonial administration had opted to build a new airport instead of a sewage system. Patten’s government pushed ahead, despite controversy over the technology that would be used to treat the water and a lingering belief that it was “pointless to do anything” because pollution would float down the Pearl River from mainland China, says Loh.

That turned out to be a mistaken assumption. Virtually all of the water pollution was local. “If you went up to the Peak, you could see dark patches in the water from the sewage outflow,” says Lawrence Ho, a Water Supplies Department engineer who works on the HATS scheme.

“When we were kids, we used to fish in the harbour, but in the 1980s you could hardly catch any fish, and even if you did, it would be smelly,” says Tse Chi-shan, who oversees the Stonecutters Island Treatment Works.

Since the plant opened in 2001, it has collected all of the sewage from Kowloon, Tseung Kwan O, Tsuen Wan and Tsing Yi and treated it with chemicals and chlorine, a process that removes 99 percent of E. coli and up to 80 percent of other pollutants. By the end of the decade, an even more effective biological treatment process will be implemented, reducing pollution even further.

450,000 tons of raw sewage still flow into the harbour every day from Hong Kong Island, but this will be diverted to Stonecutters Island in 2014 when the second stage of HATS is completed. Water quality is expected to improve significantly afterwards.

Improving air quality, however, is proving to be far more complicated. Recent studies have shown that most air pollution is produced locally, rather than across the border in mainland China, and the sources are diverse and numerous.

“You have power plants, cars, ships, manufacturing — these are the main sources of pollution,” says Joanne Ooi, chief executive officer of the Clean Air Network. Tackling the problem on so many fronts requires a clear plan on the part of the government, she says, “but the political wherewithal just doesn’t exist. You have scattershot, ad hoc initiatives that are not integrated into a long-term plan.”

A major sticking point for clean-air activists is the fact that the government has not updated its official air quality objectives since they were first introduced in 1987. Introducing stricter standards is the first step towards reducing air pollution, says Christine Loh. “They need to say, ‘We will clean up air quality to the extent that it no longer acts as a daily threat to the population of Hong Kong,’” she says.

Even with tighter air quality objectives, however, getting the private sector to reduce its emissions could prove contentious. Virtually all of the major polluters in Hong Kong are privately-owned, from power companies to bus operators and shipping lines. Some have agreed to undertake voluntary initiatives — in October, an association of shipping companies has advocated burning low-sulfur fuel when ships are docked in Hong Kong — but efforts to scrap highly-polluting buses and trucks have proven ineffective. Despite government subsidies on replacing old vehicles, buses that fail to meet the latest vehicle emission standards, known as Euro IV and Euro V, make up 60 percent of the city’s fleet.

“A corporation has one duty — to bring profit to its shareholders,” says Christian Masset, founder of the pressure group Clear the Air. “You can’t expect them to do anything voluntarily.” He says strict regulations are the only way to pressure polluters into cleaning up their act. He advocates taking a hard line with transport companies by forcing them to upgrade their vehicles and to harmonize cross-harbour tunnel fares to ease congestion.

“We are the second-richest place in Asia behind Japan,” he says. “We have money to invest.”

Indeed, the government has recorded seven straight years of surpluses, giving it a record-breaking HK$580 billion that it has yet to spend. Little of that money is slated to be spent on air pollution initiatives.

The government defends its record on air quality by pointing to the decline of certain pollutants, such as sulphur dioxide, whose levels have been reduced by 48 percent since 1999, thanks largely to the introduction of low-sulphur fuel and tighter emission caps at the city’s power plants. The city’s two power companies, CLP Power and Hongkong Electric, have responded to the caps by spending HK$10 billion flue gas scrubbers.

The government also plans to introduce new air quality objectives. But a new study from the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health have found that the proposed objectives might actually be more lenient than the 1987 standards they would replace. If they come into effect, the study estimates that the resulting pollution would cause 1860 avoidable deaths, 92,745 hospital bed days of care and 5.2 million doctor visits per year.

“I don’t think water pollution has ever been as sensitive an issue,” says School of Public Health professor Anthony Hedley. The fact that cleaning water has always been a less contentious and complex task than dealing with air pollution has made it easier to build up the political will to deal with it, he says.

Thanks to the government’s investments in cleaning up the harbour, the Hong Kong Amateur Swimming Association plans to bring back the cross-harbour swim later this year, in honour of the 60th anniversary of the city’s Olympic team.

“It’s a very important part of our collective memory,” says Ronnie Wong. He has fond memories of swimming in the open water, under blue skies, and he hopes the revival of the race will encourage more young Hong Kong people to embrace open water swimming. “It feels totally different from swimming in a pool. You can see the mountains in front of you. You feel freedom.”

Those blue skies, however, are becoming rarer every year. “The implications are very bad,” says Hedley. “If you’ve grown up in highly-polluted air, you will predictably have lower levels of lung function. That will expose them to higher risk of heart and lung disease and premature death. This is an extremely worrying scenario. For some children it is almost certainly too late.”


Above, images from the cross-harbour swim in 1954

This story was originally published in China Daily on March 1, 2011.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday March 03 2011at 12:03 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Environment, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “In Hong Kong, Cleaner Water, Dirtier Air”

  • Phil says:

    “450,000 tons of raw sewage still flow into the harbour every day”

    Is that figure correct…per day?


  • Yes indeed. Until 2001 it was two million tons of raw sewage per day.

    Last summer a Star Ferry captain told me he used to see dolphins swimming in the harbour. No wonder there aren’t any left.