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50 years of pioneering mainland-HK water supply

2015-02-17 09:28 Xinhua Web Editor: Mo Hong'e

Li Jianhui has a weathered complexion that is not surprising given his 50 years working on a precursor to the staggeringly ambitious water diversion project taking shape in China today.

Since 1964, the 58-year-old has toiled for the Guangdong Yue Gang Water Supply Company, which reroutes water from the Dongjiang River in south China's Guangdong Province to the thirsty bordering island of Hong Kong via a 68-km pipeline.

Five decades since the project's launch, it stands as an early example of China's grand water supply initiatives, which are continuing apace as Beijing and Hebei begin to benefit from the massive south-north water diversion scheme.

The Dongjiang-Hong Kong project is also notable for prospering through 50 years of dramatic political and industrial development. It was launched before China implemented its policy of reform and opening up to the world, before Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony and was returned to China in 1997. The water continued to flow through the Cultural Revolution, and it is a paradigm of cleanliness while other waterways have succumbed to pollution in China's breakneck industrialization.

Li has been a witness to all of this.

In the early 1960s, Hong Kong was in the throes of severe drought, he recalls. "People had water supply once every four days, four hours at a time."

The Hong Kong-based Chinese General Chamber of Commerce and the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions asked for help from the Guangdong provincial government.

It agreed to give Hong Kong 20,000 tonnes of tap water for free. Meanwhile, the province appealed to the central government and was allocated 38 million yuan in funding for the Dongjiang-Hong Kong water supply project.

The Dongjiang River originates in east China's Jiangxi Province, with a length of 562 km, and flows to the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong.

Li's job involved supervising a reservoir in a desolate valley near his accommodation in Shenzhen City. "We had to walk almost two hours from the compound to the reservoir," he says. "There was no shuttle bus."

He describes the days as "lonely with beautiful scenery". Li and his colleagues were soundtracked by the susurrus of the river and the silence of the mountains.

There were nine people working at Li's sub-station. They were authorized to use an internal telephone to liaise with their Hong Kong counterparts. Though they could speak in the Cantonese dialect concentrated in the area, they had other communication issues.

Because of China's lack of contact with the outside world at the time, the workers were "required to have political consciousness", as Li puts it. "We were not permitted to talk about anything other than water supply to the Hong Kong side."

The more than 10 thousand manual laborers involved in getting the project operational faced much more basic difficulties than avoiding overstepping the mark in what they said over the phone, according to Li. The work was extremely tough, with Li noting that "there were no modern construction appliances like concrete mixers available when the country was in hard times economically."

Nevertheless, the workforce managed to reverse the original south-to-north flow of the Dongjiang by raising the water level in the upstream section by 46 meters and transferring the water by canals and pipelines.

And in March 1965, Hong Kong started drinking fresh water from the mainland.

The project provided 68.2 million cubic meters of water that year. It could be also regarded as China's earliest water rights trade, according to Long Liangqing, manager of the Guangdong Yue Gang Water Supply Company.

And it has flowed ever since, even through the chaotic years of 1966-1976, when China's Cultural Revolution stalled the economy. An accumulative 22.35 billion cubic meters of water has reached Hong Kong through the project to date.

Some 7.6 billion yuan has been spent over the years on upgrading the infrastructure. Its annual water supply to Hong Kong now stands at 2.4 billion cubic meters, meaning 80 percent of the special administrative region's drinking water comes from the Dongjiang River, according to Long.

The 1.1 billion cubic meters of water now stored by Hong Kong means it will avoid serious drought in future, he adds.

The water is exceptionally clean too. As China has industrialized, factories have spewed pollution into rivers nationwide. But the Dongjiang River's long-shore cities like Heyuan and Huizhou chose moderate industrial and economic development.

Lai Shouxiong, deputy director of Heyuan's water resource bureau, says the city, under-developed by the standards of the Pearl River Delta, has refused over 60 billion yuan in investment by more than 500 industrial projects which would have threatened water pollution.

The city has also spent 70 million yuan on sewage treatment. "There are 400 million people relying on the river for safe water," Lai says. "This is less about money and more about social responsibility."

For 50 years, the quality of water from the project has been officially rated above average, flowing through four pumping stations. The Yue Gang Water Supply Company tests its water for 109 indexes.

"Most of the detection equipment has been imported," says Lin Qing, director of the company's water environment monitoring center. "Science has played an important role in safeguarding water quality."

"The age of huge workforces of people people such as Li Jianhui being recruited for public service projects has gone," Lin says. "But the sustainable supply of high-quality water to Hong Kong will never stop."


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