November 24, 2005

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The rain in Guangdong falls mainly in Hong Kong

A bureaucrat's instinct when faced with a problem is to cover it up. And so it has proved in Harbin, where a toxic chemical spill into the Songhua river has finally been confirmed. Rumours had swept Harbin on Monday of some kind of water trouble, which lead to scenes of panic buying and water hoarding amid the confusion. The government cut off the water supply "at wee hours Wednesday" (could Xinhua be in the pun business?), leaving a city of almost 4 million literally without water. The chemical spill has passed Harbin at around 5am this morning and supplies have resumed again, although would you drink that water?

Far more interesting will be whether the chemical plant where the explosion occurred will be investigated and prosecuted if (as seems likely) found negligent. Much depends on how long media focus remains on Harbin.

Perhaps because I come from Sydney, Australia, a city and country constantly worrying about water supplies, I find the next water story staggering. It all began back in 1989, when Hong Kong reached an agreement with Guangdong to secure water supplies for the Big Lychee. That agreement gave Hong Kong priority access to Guangdong's water (which supplies 80% of Hong Kong's water needs), in return for Hong Kong paying well in excess of normal rates. In typical style the deal allocated a rising amount of water to Hong Kong to allow for growing water usage over the years. According to the SCMP, Hong Kong is due to receive 810 million cubic metres a year of water from the East River. But because public servants have no idea how to guage future demand, it has turned out Hong Kong has used less than its full allocation. The twist is Hong Kong has already paid for that water. So what does it do? It dumps it in the sea! Between 1999 and 2003 more than 500 million cubic metres of water, which at the agreement rate of HK$3.085 a cubic metre represents HK$1.5 billion worth, was dumped because Hong Kong's reservoirs were full.

The new agreement is a step in the right direction. Hong Kong will guarantee to buy a minimum of 600 million cubic metres and pay only for what it uses. In return it will increase the per unit price by 10%.

Haste makes waste, but waste is a hasty bureaucrat.

posted by Simon on 11.24.05 at 08:41 AM in the China food/environment/health category.Hong Kong category.


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It goes beyond bureaucracy, of course, doesn't it, Simon?

China is a land ruled by man. So, to me, that means indecency at the appropriate times, manipulation and the horror of denial and obfuscation is prized over law.

Rule of law became an important ingredient to a stable society precisely because humans in a system that prize cheating will do anything and harm other people in the outcome.

Sometimes I get the feeling that if I was a Chinese, I would be pissed off at my country's government, and I would really like to get them out.

posted by: doug on 11.24.05 at 09:16 AM [permalink]

I'd take a more economic tack - people are driven by self-interest and incentives. When those incentives are properly conceived, individual self-interest leads to a greater overall good - the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. At other times self-interests and incentives can be destructive to the greater good.

However overall I agree with your sentiments.

posted by: Simon on 11.24.05 at 03:38 PM [permalink]

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