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Testing the water: A look into HK's proposals for recreational activities along the harbourfront

Written by
Dhruv Tikekar
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The government’s recent proposals to introduce swimming areas and slides into Victoria Harbour has raised eyebrows given the history of water pollution. Have recent efforts done enough to make such proposals safe? Dhruv Tikekar investigates

Development along Hong Kong Island’s harbourfront has long been one of the most contentious civic issues. Government decisions to reclaim land along Central and Wan Chai harbourfront, in particular, were met with resistance in 2003 from local groups that cited the reclamations as being unnecessary and in violation of existing legislation, namely the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance. 

In January last year, the Harbourfront Commission and the Planning Department commenced the Urban Design Study for the Wan Chai North and North Point Harbourfront Areas in a bid to realise their vision for ‘reconnecting people to the water’. More recently, when development secretary Paul Chan detailed plans for these areas in May in an online blog post, among the proposed developments were floating swimming pools, water slides and diving pools. While the proposals have been and continue to be vetted through numerous public consultations, two issues remain to be addressed further – the quality of the water in Victoria Harbour and the necessity of certain proposals listed in the study.

In a statement issued by the Environmental Protection Department, pollution in Victoria Harbour is said to have ‘dropped by over 70 percent’ since the implementation of a treatment scheme in 2001. The two-stage Harbourfront Area Treatment Scheme (Hats) has been in operation since 2001 to chemically treat waste that was entering the harbour through outflows and is now in its second stage. “Hats 2 has made a big change to the quality of the water,” says Ian Brownlee, managing director of Masterplan Limited and an active triathlete who has participated in cross-harbour swims. Yet even if water quality in the harbour has improved, there remains room for further improvement. “There are still areas which have outfalls,” says Brownlee. “There are drains coming into [the harbour] from right up in Tai Hang through Causeway Bay. And it’s much better than what it was, but the quality [around there] is not as good as out in the middle of the harbour.” 

That is of particular concern at the newly named Water Sports and Recreation Precinct – formerly the Wan Chai Public Cargo Working Area, a sector that development secretary Paul Chan has stated would be used for pool projects and water activities. Developments along this stretch of Wan Chai harbourfront are particularly susceptible to shoreline pollution because of discharge from storm drains emptying into the harbour – raising health concerns over those plans to reconnect Hongkongers with the water. “If we use fresh water [in a closed system], it won’t cause a health problem,” says professor Kenneth Leung, a marine ecotoxicologist who also specialises in assessing marine pollution at the University of Hong Kong, referring to the water slides and pool plans. “If the system is open,” he cautions, “the water quality won’t be good because of tidal movements and the surface runoff from storm drainages.” Many restaurants, Leung explains, wash their dishes in alleyways, letting the surface runoff enter the storm drains that carry these waters straight to the harbour. “These waters contain high levels of lipids, proteins and carbohydrates,” he says. “So you have high quantities of nutritional content entering the sea. That storm water contains lots of bacteria.” 

In response to being asked whether it would be advisable for there to be water slides and diving pools plunging into the seawater and whether the water quality near the shoreline would be suitable for Hongkongers to swim in, the Environmental Protection Department insists: “It is possible that the main harbour outside the ex-Public Cargo Working Area can support various types of secondary contact recreational activities,” which involve activities on the water but not in it.

Although those assurances sound less than ironclad, the issue of coming directly into contact with the water is a non-starter, according to Brownlee, whose organisation is currently consulting on the project. “In terms of being immersed in the water – primary contact – that can take place too. We’ve proven it. And all through the time that the water’s been ‘polluted’, people have still been swimming in the harbour,” he tells us. “It’s a bit like the argument regarding Rio and the Olympics. There’s a triathlon venue that’s going to be used for the Olympics and theoretically it’s polluted. But everyone – and I’ve seen interviews with people who [have tried the course] – said it’s fine.” 

Instead, Brownlee suggests that the feasibility of introducing floating pools to Victoria Harbour should be brought into question. “The principle is: is it necessary? And it’s not necessary to have a swimming pool on the harbour because the simple answer is, if you want to swim in the harbour, you can swim in the harbour. You don’t need a pool to swim there,” he argues.

April Kun, the SAR’s chief town planner
April Kun, the SAR’s chief town planner

The government study, however, believes there is a need to strike a balance between the various functions that the precinct should serve. For them, the overriding imperative continues to be flexibility of use. “The public engagement process is a process to recognise different views,” states April Kun, the government’s chief town planner. “In the first stage, the Harbourfront Commission was always reminding us that we needed flexibility,” she explains. “We need shared uses. We need every kind of activity that can be in the best interest – the public interest of Hong Kong.” 

For Paul Zimmerman, Southern district councillor and advisor to the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, the issue of necessity should extend to sheltered water areas along the harbourfront. “We have a shortage of sheltered water in Hong Kong… Why park a barge with a swimming pool in the Wan Chai Basin? This isn’t a smart use of the water,” he argues, saying it would be better to build proper swimming pools on land.

While Zimmerman agrees that the quality of the water is getting better all the time, the major worry, he claims, rests with areas of enclosed waters. Namely, the typhoon shelters and the Wan Chai Basin. The problem of discharge into such areas is compounded by the fact that there is very little water flow. “It’s especially bad in Causeway Bay,” according to Zimmerman. “Whatever people let into the storm drains, sometimes through illegal connections, all of that ends up in the typhoon shelters,” he says. The government is proposing to address the issue by searching for the sources of the waste entering the systems or the illegal connections people are employing. Zimmerman, however, disagrees with this approach. “You can only do so much,” he counters. “The way to address [this issue] would be to introduce interceptors. That would be the most expedient way to do it,” he believes, referring to systems installed in storm drains to clean the water before it exits. The issue of water quality in the harbour is therefore only a temporary problem, according to Zimmerman, readily fixable with the will to do so. 

Despite the steps made to clean Victoria Harbour, all sides do at least acknowledge that shoreline pollution remains a challenge that shouldn’t be ignored. “Frankly speaking, we may not be able to, on day one, improve the quality up to the level of direct contact,” Kun concedes. “But we see an opportunity to introduce some activities through secondary contact with the area. These activities don’t involve direct contact with the water but we hope that, before we go to that stage, we can introduce people to this area to enjoy the waterfront.”

For more information about development plans, visit the Harbourfront Commission website at hfc.org.hk.

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