Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor

On the Surface, She’s a Beauty

By Violet Law

HONG KONG - Of the nearly 7 million people in Hong Kong, Sing Lai has one of the best views of the city’s dazzling Victoria Harbor.

As a skipper on the Star Ferry line for more than 30 years, he has shuttled thousands of commuters across the jade green harbor, rimmed with gleaming skyscrapers and steep verdant hills. He has come to know the waters like an old friend and he says he has seen remarkable change for the better. He spots less driftwood and garbage, he said, and more fish. 

“The currents still sweep the trash in,” Mr. Lai said, “but a lot less than before.”

But there is more in the waters of Victoria Harbor than meets the eye.

Until the early 1990s, the picture-postcard harbor was the main dumping ground for the city’s sewage. Ever more partially treated waste flowed into the harbor as the city grew by a million people a decade through the better part of last century.  By the early 1960s, the water was dangerously polluted.  The popular cross-harbor swim meet, held annually for years, was shut down.

In the late 1980s, the Hong Kong government came up with a strategy to treat the sewage and revive the harbor.  In 1997 a large-scale sewage treatment plant went into operation in the first phase of what the government calls the Harbor Area Treatment Scheme.

Hong Kong officials are hoping to clean up the water sufficiently to reinstitute the cross-harbor swim.  “The water quality will see further significant improvements,” said Peter Baldwin, senior officer with the city’s Environmental Protection Department. He oversees the sewage plant.

But harbor watchdogs are less optimistic, and they are critical of what they regard as an expedient approach to sewage treatment.

They say that instead of bringing the city’s overall treatment process up to international standards, officials act only when the effects of contamination become apparent and complaints from residents grow louder.
Clarus Chu, a senior marine conservation officer with the World Wildlife Federation in Hong Kong, said he was pleased the government was taking steps to clean up the harbor.  “But it’s just not good enough,” he said. “They could do better.”

The government is now phasing in chemical treatment of the foul water – but not treating it biologically to remove phosphates and other nitrogen-rich pollutants. Using both chemical and biological treatments, commonly known as primary and secondary treatments, is standard practice around the world.  In some countries, a third process – disinfection with chlorine or ozone – has been introduced.

The shortcomings of chemical treatment are only evident in the harbor’s high levels of E. coli, a kind of bacteria that can cause diarrhea or even kidney failure. Mr. Baldwin of the Environmental Protection Department acknowledged that current treatment can remove only half the bacteria. He said the government is studying plans to build a biological treatment plant but that no decision had been made.

Environmentalists are frustrated.  “The government plans to use loads and loads of bleaching water” or chlorine to kill the E. coli—but not treat the nutrients that keep feeding the bacteria, said Mr. Chu of the World Wildlife Federation. “What they want is a quick fix.”

Mr. Chu said it has been hard to raise public consciousness about the harbor’s water quality. Most, like Mr. Lai the Star Ferry skipper, see a shimmering harbor, beautifully setting off the office and hotel towers on the shores of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. 

For them, the pollution is invisible. The result, environmentalists say, is that there is little pressure on the government to vigorously tackle the pollution.  “If you don’t see it you don’t care about it as much,” Mr. Chu said. “You don’t feel that the water quality is bad unless it smells.”


Photo by Paul Santos

The Star Ferry churning across Hong Kong’s Victoria

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