Singapore vs. Hong Kong, Water

By Dante Archangeli

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Hong Kong through the Looking Glass: A Series on Sustainable Planet, People, and Prosperity

Hong Kong and Singapore are both world-class “city states”. And they are competitors. At least Hong Kong thinks they are. I don’t know if Singapore feels the same way. Maybe the situation is similar to one when I was in college. MIT undergrads considered Harvard students to be rivals. MIT friends could sing several verses of the Engineers’ Song that poked fun at Harvard, were fairly ribald, and so far are still too risqué for either Wikipedia or YouTube. But a long held suspicion of mine about that supposed rivalry was recently confirmed by a friend who attended Harvard at the time in question. The rivalry was one sided. And like most unrequited relationships, neither side had any inkling of the other’s sentiments.

Regardless of Singapore’s and Hong Kong’s sentiments towards each other, it’s interesting to look at how the two compare based on sustainability standards. But first, how do they stack up on measures more people care about?

The right shoes are important in Hong Kong.
The right shoes are important in Hong Kong.

What would E! wonder?

In Hong Kong people on the subway dress their feet more stylishly (if you ignore the unfortunately ubiquitous women’s-footwear bows), typically wearing designer high heels, Italian wingtips, or eye-catching fashion sport shoes instead of Singapore’s flip flops and sensible sneakers. Those high heels may be part of the reason why it seems people are taller in Hong Kong, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t explain the taller men. In any case, at just under 5’10” (1.77 m) I’m well above average for both cities. In terms of median girth however, Singaporeans takes the cake.

Singapore signs sound like your Mom, not your boss.
Singapore signs sound like your Mom, not your boss.

How else is Singapore different? Alleys and streets are cleaner but unfortunately also wider to accommodate more cars. Sidewalks are cleaner and wider too. There is less litter in general, especially in the water. The subway is the MRT, not the MTR, and is less crowded, although cars have three rows of hanging hand-holds instead of two. Announcements are in four languages not three. MRT riders are asked not to lean on the doors and reminded to watch the platform gap but, unlike MTR patrons, don’t need to be cautioned “Please do not look only at your mobile phone” while riding escalators. Signs on the MRT and everywhere in Singapore suggest, rather than prescribe, behavior additionally they’re bigger and more conspicuous.

What about water sustainability?

Both locations deliver good quality drinking water that is tested in accordance with, and meets or surpasses, the World Health Organization’s 2011 Guidelines for Drinking Water Quality. Tap water in both cities looks, smells, and tastes fine.

water use

Hong Kong consumes 50 percent more water for domestic purposes than Singapore on a per person per day basis, approximately 226 liters (60 gallons) versus 151 liters (40 gallons). For all purposes (domestic, commercial, industrial, agricultural, etc.), Hong Kong’s water use of 460 liters (122 gallons) per person per day is 44 percent greater than Singapore’s 320 liters (85 gallons) per day. To provide perspective to American readers, Tucson, Arizona, one of the more water efficient cities in the U.S., uses 333 liters (88 gallons) for domestic purposes and 480 (127 gallons) for all purposes.

Singapore’s per capita daily domestic water use has been falling for the last 10 years and their goal is to reduce it to 140 liters (37 gallons) by 2030. From 2005 to 2013 Hong Kong’s domestic water use grew by 10 liters per person per day. I haven’t been able to find future per capita use goals for Hong Kong.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain

For a while I thought that Hong Kong and Singapore used close to the same amount of water per person for domestic purposes. Then I discovered that Hong Kong breaks its domestic use into two categories, Fresh Water Consumption and Flushing Water Consumption, and reports them separately. This may be unique in the world of water-use reporting. When you Google “Hong Kong per capita water consumption” the flushing water use does not appear. If flushing water is not taken into account, Hong Kong domestic water use appears to be about 40 percent lower than it really is. This isn’t the first time that the Hong Kong government may be suspect with respect to its environmental data reporting methods. Early in 2014 it came to light that the Environmental Services Department had been reporting plastic from other countries being shipped through Hong Kong to mainland recyclers as Hong Kong recycling.

Both cities face water supply challenges and utilize innovative as well as traditional water sources. Hong Kong has three sources, the primary one being water from mainland China. Singapore has a Four National Taps strategy that has the goal of making the country fully water self-sufficient by 2061.

Hong Kong's rain water catchment reservoirs are surrounded by Country Parks.
Hong Kong’s rain water catchment reservoirs are surrounded by Country Parks.

Seventy to 80 percent of Hong Kong’s drinking water comes from the Dongjiang River in mainland China. (Conventional wisdom credits this as a major factor in Britain’s meek acquiescence to the turnover of all of Hong Kong, not just the leased New Territories, to the People’s Republic of China in 1997.) The remaining 20 to 30 percent of the city’s drinking water comes from rainfall collected in reservoirs in unbuilt areas throughout Hong Kong. A noteworthy innovation for its time was that two reservoirs were formed by damming ocean inlets, draining the sea water, and then refilling with captured rain water. About one-third of Hong Kong’s land area is reserved exclusively for reservoirs and their tributary watersheds. This land makes up much of Hong Kong’s excellent Country Parks system. The third source of water, supplying about 23 percent of total water use (potable and non-potable) is sea water for use in toilet flushing delivered through a separate network of distribution mains, pumping stations, and service reservoirs. But there seems to be more involved with this last source than meets the eye. In our building, notices about cleaning the building cisterns, for both fresh and flush water, are posted annually. However, when in the name of thorough investigative journalism I’ve tasted the water in our toilet tank several times over the past year, it’s never been salty. Nor have I ever noticed on any toilet, public or private, the mineral efflorescence or corrosion that I would expect to occur with sea water use. So that’s a mystery for further investigation.

What isn’t a mystery though is that Hong Kong’s water supply is not sustainable. As Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta area of China continue to grow and compete for water, Hong Kong’s water supply situation will become more precarious. However Hong Kong apparently has no specific strategies for moving toward water sustainability. Current water supplies are projected to be adequate until 2030, but no plans for what will happen after that seem to be in the works. The Total Water Management in Hong Kong plan which covers the period through 2030 has not been updated in six years. It appears that no significant expenditures for system upgrades are planned. Although the government is reluctant to raise water rates or spend public money to improve Hong Kong’s water security, it admonishes individuals to decrease water use through a variety of conservation measures including personal spending for water efficient appliances and fixtures.

Singapore’s Sustainability Roadmap

Singapore’s current water sources are NEWater (reclaimed water), desalination, importation from Malaysia, and “active, beautiful, clean waters” (ABC water) from local catchments. Its fifty year water plan anticipates that imported water will be phased out over time. NEWater, primarily used for non-domestic purposes, currently supplies 30 percent of Singapore’s water needs. It is projected to meet 50 percent of 2060 demand. In other words by 2060 Singapore plans to recycle 50 percent of the water it uses. Desalination currently provides 10 percent of Singapore’s water and is counted on to provide 30 percent by 2060. Imported water and ABC water meet 60 percent of Singapore’s current water demand. It’s Singapore’s goal to not have to rely on imported water after 2061. Singapore reports that today approximately 66 percent of its land area is used for rainwater catchment to supply ABC water. The goal is that by 2060 90 percent of Singapore’s area will be used for rainwater catchment which will supply enough water to satisfy 20 percent of the country’s needs.

Singapore's rain water catchments are surrounded by city . . .
Singapore’s rain water catchments are surrounded by city…

According to Singapore’s Public Utility Board  (PUB) web site, ” What this means is that we will be collecting every drop of rain that falls on our land, turning the entire island into a water catchment. In doing so, we need everyone to help us by keeping all our waterways and waterbodies clean. That drain at your block, that pond in your estate and that canal down the road are all collecting rainwater for our water supply.” Urban storm water harvesting is a major component of ABC water. No wonder Singapore is vigilant about litter. PUB foresees that “The Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) programme will transform our utilitarian drains, canals and reservoirs into beautiful and vibrant streams, rivers and lakes. We believe that by encouraging people to enjoy water activities and bringing water close to the population, everyone will appreciate this precious resource and use it wisely.”

. . . and parks.
… and parks.

Singapore projects that even with conservation measures, its water demand will double between 2011 and 2061 and is planning how to meet that increased demand. It recognizes that the current high energy requirements of water desalination pose a significant threat to the long term viability of the desalination strategy and is investing in research and development to address the issue. But rather than treating their water sustainability efforts as a costly problem, Singapore sees the expertise that they have developed in this area as an economic engine. According to the PUB web site, “Globally, Singapore is increasingly… exporting our expertise oversees, besides nurturing a global hub for water technologies here. The annual Singapore International Water Week, with more than 10,000 delegates each year, is growing…Our mid-term goal is to grow [the] value-added contribution from the water sector… Jobs for this sector are expected to double to about 11,000 in 2015.”


It seems to me that Hong Kong and the U.S. need more of Singapore’s long term vision and can-do attitude. So sustainability Round One goes to Singapore by a wide margin. Round Two will be coming up.



Dante Archangeli moved to Hong Kong from Tucson, Arizona, where he focused on sustainable construction and development. He is an MIT and USC educated project manager, entrepreneur, and builder.

All photos by Dante Archangeli.

  1. Hi Dante,

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your postings. Sorry I haven’t commented before now. One thing that continually strikes me, (as a child of the 60s remembering all the population control discussions) is that there seems to be an acceptance of continual increase in population and this is no longer a piece of the sustainability issue. Do you find any discussion on population management in any form in either Hong Kong or Singapore?

    1. Hi Lindy. I haven’t seen discussion specifically of proactive population management in either Hong Kong or Singapore, although birth rates in Hong Kong are low. In fact the HK government is concerned about the demographic shift (to a larger portion of elderly) because that makes it harder for the working age portion of the population to support the elderly. Hong Kong families are having fewer children than in the past, and couples are waiting longer to have children. The speculation is that people cannot afford to have many children or children early in life. Of course China still has its one-child policy, although that has been relaxed. I believe that if both spouses are only-children, then they are allowed to have two children. But I need to verify that. Hong Kong vs Singapore demographics is one of the topics I’d like to explore in a future blog, but HK’s “Strike for Democracy” might delay that.

  2. Hi Dante,
    Very interesting article. You are totally right about the shoes. When I was a little girl, in around 1990s, there is a movie talking about two boys. One of the boy comes to mainland China to learn Gong Fu, and he wears a shoes equipped with light. This is the first time bring in my mind that Hong Kong people wear good shoes. As I grow up, nearly all the boys around me desire an pair of exclusive sneakers bought from Hong Kong. I don’t know whether it is because of the price, but I agree that most people in Hong Kong focus on the way they portray themselves.

    1. Hi Alice. In the U.S. we always associate Gong Fu (we call it Kung Fu) with Hong Kong, because we first learned about it from Hong Kong movies. It’s interesting to learn that Hong Kong people would go to China to study Gong Fu. Of course that makes sense, but I hadn’t thought of it before. There was a popular song when I was growing up called “Kung Fu Fighting”. Here is a link to a 1974 performance of that song. The hair styles of the audience seem funny now but were very stylish then.

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