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Thursday, Sep 24, 2020

Villagers on Hong Kong’s remote Tung Ping Chau island set to finally get drinking water ... from the sea

Tung Ping Chau has just a few dozen residents still living on it, so Hong Kong’s water utility is unwilling to build a permanent pipeline. So the community has finally given a desalination facility the go ahead.

A desalination facility promising to get much-needed drinking water to villagers in remote, off-grid settlements on Hong Kong’s easternmost island of Tung Ping Chau is expected to finally start this year.

Backed by HK$30 million (US$3.8 million) in funding from the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a desalination facility near Chau Mei village on the island is hoped to be up and running this year, according to the village head. Under the pilot scheme, the facility will supply about 1,000 litres of clean drinking water a day to villagers.

A fully operational desalination plant is expected to supply up to 4,000 litres of water to the islanders – enough for cooking and drinking.

“With improved basic facilities, we hope to be able to attract more villagers to move back to live on the island, or open some businesses there to make it become lively again,” said Lee Wan-hoi, head of Chau Mei village.

Tung Ping Chau sits in Mirs Bay, in Hong Kong’s northeastern waters. The crescent-shaped island measures about 1.16 sq km, roughly half the size of Cheung Chau.

While Tung Ping Chau sits closer to Shenzhen than Hong Kong, it is registered as one of the city’s country and marine parks, and falls under the Hong Kong Unesco Global Geopark – a natural wonder for local geologists and weekend day trippers.

Nevertheless, the island still has no potable water supply. Instead, residents rely on raw well water tanks for personal use, which have in the past run dry, prompting the government to ship over bottled water. There is no electricity supply on the island either. The public toilets and other government facilities are powered by solar or by diesel generators.

“Without a supply of fresh water, the government is in effect forcing us to abandon our home villages,” Lee said.

The village leader said the island was home to about 2,000 people in the 1950s and 1960s, but today, there are just 50 or 60 residents – mostly elderly.

The younger villagers, he said, moved to urban areas and only returned during festivals.

According to the Water Supplies Department, the utility’s networks cover about 99.9 per cent of Hong Kong’s population. A spokesman said if it was to also cover Tung Ping Chau’s sparse population, a 10km submarine pipeline would have to be laid from Ko Lau Wan, in Sai Kung.

“The low water consumption of the sparse population of Tung Ping Chau together with the long submarine pipeline will result in stagnant water in the pipeline leading to deterioration of water quality,” the spokesman said.

“Moreover, the per capita cost for construction of the 10km submarine pipeline is very high.”

The idea of a mini desalination facility, however, has not always curried favour with the locals. The proposal was raised by green group Environmental Association about three years ago, and then gained funding from the Jockey Club.

“Desalination overcomes the paradox faced by the islanders – they have access to an unlimited supply of seawater but have no way to use it,” said Sai Kung North rural committee chairman Li Yiu-ban, who has been mediating the community engagement process.

But sceptical villagers feared the idea could derail their long-running bid for a government-funded pipeline. Others were concerned that by-products of the desalination process could harm the environment.

Finally, after years of consultation, the community has agreed to pilot a new desalination plant near Chau Mei village, equipped with the latest reverse osmosis technology. Lee said site inspections were under way, and the facility could be up and running by the end of 2020.

The new water treatment technology – which will also be implemented at the desalination plant being built in Tseung Kwan O – involves removing impurities in the seawater through settlement and filtration. The water then goes through reverse osmosis, completely removing salt and dirt from the liquid and making it safe to drink.

“Villagers are looking forward to it,” Lee said. “I appreciate that villagers in some other villages might have concerns, but let’s try first. If it is good, more plants can be built later. Otherwise, we can drop it.”

But Lee’s aspirations for the plant stretch farther that just drinking water. He hopes the project will also help to revitalise the now largely deserted villages on the island.

“Perhaps we can develop an eco-town there,” he said.


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