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Water and wellbeing in Hong Kong, 1945–80

August 14, 2011

University of York – by David Clayton

Fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Demand has risen because of population growth and rising affluence, while supply is constrained by the ‘natural’ hydrological cycle and by the rate of technological change in water management. Extreme weather brought about by climate change will exacerbate this mismatch. The effects of scarcity are uneven. Poor households in non-temperate climatic zones suffer disproportionately. In low-income countries, they compete with farmers irrigating crops, with industrialists cooling and lubricating machines and with bureaucrats managing hydroelectric schemes. Weak states also lose out against neighbouring ones. Future technological change is unlikely to reduce the incidence of societal and inter-state conflict; ever since the mid-19th century, innovation in water management techniques has been limited. Can environmental history reveal low-carbon solutions that might mitigate scarcity and reduce the incidence of conflict?

During its golden age of growth (c.1945–80), Hong Kong experienced rapid falls in mortality from infectious disease and (after a lag) rising average incomes, a success story founded on export-led industrialisation supported by public investment in the social infrastructure. However, rates of investment in rainwater capture technologies, on which Hong Kong depended, lagged. One million refugees, rapid industrialisation, large-scale market gardening and improved hygiene increased demand in unpredictable ways. Bureaucrats using plans, markets via the price mechanism, and communities acting collectively responded in innovative ways to endemic scarcity.

A Hong Kong street. By Leonard Jan Bruce-Chwatt. Wellcome Library

A Hong Kong street. By Leonard Jan Bruce-Chwatt. Wellcome Library

Pilot research undertaken in the Hong Kong Public Record Office and in the UK National Archives has revealed abundant materials in policy and operational files; contemporary newspapers and periodical literature, the archives of private organisations and oral histories provide supplementary materials. These sources enable three inter-related fields of enquiry. First, institutional analysis will reveal the contribution of private and public systems of water supply, the origins of supply-side innovation (such as dry sanitation, salt-water flushing, recycling and reduced leakage rates), and the effects of rationing and resource pooling, the key demand-side strategies. It will show how austerity affected the trade-offs between public health and private affluence. Secondly, descriptive and inferential data analysis will enable the water intensity of modes of production and consumption to be computed. Hong Kong exhibited sharp dualism in the use of land and technologies: unregulated, insanitary squatter settlements coexisted with high-quality residential areas, and workshops using labour-intensive modes of production coexisted with capital- and fossil-fuel-intensive producers. The effects of water scarcity, notably on heath, are likely to have varied. Thirdly, a new collaborative international political economy emerged from the 1960s. Hong Kong imported vast volumes of water from a hostile neighbouring power, China. As states within a water basin normally compete over access to water, this merits thorough investigation.

David Clayton is Senior Lecturer at the Department of History, University of York.

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