Should DB be worried about its air and water quality?

Discovery Bay residents don’t have much to complain about when it comes to standard of living and lifestyle in general, but how concerned should we be about the air we breathe and the water we drink? Henry Benjamin investigates.

It can be easy to take life here for granted and forget just how good DBers and, more broadly, Hong Kongers have it in comparison to people in other parts of the world. That being said, the most basic things that most of us in the developed world have come to accept as normal, such as clean air and pure drinking water, can no longer be taken for granted. Here in Hong Kong, air fluctuates in quality and is certainly not always at a healthy level, and there has been plenty of controversy surrounding the potability of our tap water.

We find out where DB’s air and water stand in terms of quality, how they compare to the rest of Hong Kong and whether residents here have anything to worry about.

Quenching your thirst

Hong Kong’s mains water supply comes from the Dongjiang River in Guangdong Province and has done since the 1960s. Its quality has long been a source of discussion and conjecture, with users divided over whether it is safe to drink straight from the tap or not. Many opt to install a filter on their tap, some believe there is no need and others flatly refuse to drink tap water and go for bottled water instead.

In Hong Kong, water quality is regulated using the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) guidelines for drinkingwater quality. The government’s Water Supplies Department (WSD) states on its website that “Hong Kong enjoys one of the safest water supplies in the world”. The WSD takes regular samples, which are “continuously monitored by qualified chemists”.

Last year’s tainted water scandal in Hong Kong brought the issue of safety to the forefront, with the water in a host of public housing estates – predominantly in the New Territories –containing levels of lead that exceeded the guidelines provided by the WHO. Old, rusty piping systems and contaminated water-storage tanks were found to be the culprit. The scandal had an impact in Discovery Bay, with many questioning whether there were similar issues here.

At the bequest of residents, Islands District Council member for Discovery Bay Amy Yung oversaw the taking of a number of samples in DB. Test sites included Peninsula, Beach and Greenvale villages and the commercial area in DB Plaza.

“According to the WHO, the healthbased guideline value for lead is no more than 10ug/l (10 micrograms),” Amy said in an email to residents in September 2015. “I am pleased to inform you that all tests recorded lead levels significantly below this level.” Amy has not had any complaints about our water supply since and she is a big advocate for its quality. “I myself drink water from the tap and I don’t use a filter,” she says.

The City Owners Committee (COC), however, emphasises the need for constant vigilance. Thomas Gebauer, a member of the COC’s Environmental Protection Sub-committee, explains: “I recommend very strict supervision of the cleaning of roof water tanks by competent, independent experts. I also recommend taking water samples from time to time in residential dwellings and commercial enterprises.”

Certainly, the WSD recommends proper maintenance of buildings’ water tanks and pipes. It also advises individuals to maintain domestic water filters properly as they are “an ideal breeding ground for bacterial growth”. Notably, the WSD has banned any filtering apparatus being connected to the mains water supply, fearing contamination. 

Getting a lungful 

We can see with our own eyes that air quality in Hong Kong fluctuates. On high pollution days, a thick smog blows in from the factories in China, particularly Guangdong Province. That Hong Kong has the world’s highest traffic density and still relies upon coal-burning power plants is also a major contributor.

According to the Hedley Environmental Index, which measures Hong Kong’s pollution, the territory experienced PM2.5 levels in excess of the WHO short-term limit for the first four months of 2016. Measuring one-thirtieth the width of a human hair, PM2.5 particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and are known to cause illnesses such as lung cancer and heart disease.

Air pollution has emerged as the world’s fourth biggest cause of premature death, according to the results of a joint study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The Hedley Environmental Index also shows that between January 1 and September 1 of this year there were 1,117 premature deaths due to air pollution in Hong Kong alone. 

On the upside, the Environmental Protection Department states on its website that air quality in the Pearl River Delta (PRD), including Hong Kong, has improved since 2015 and improved greatly since 2006. “The average annual concentration levels of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and respirable suspended particulates in the PRD decreased by 19%, 11% and 13% respectively in 2015 when compared with the 2014 levels,” it says.

“Compared with the 2006 levels, the pollutants also showed a significant downward trend with decreases of 72%, 28% and 34% respectively.” 

The Hong Kong Air Pollution Index is based on a rating of low to severe. Hotspots include built-up areas like Causeway Bay, Central and Mongkok, particularly at street level. It follows that Lantau, Lamma and the New Territories usually have low levels of pollution.

That being said, a 2015 study showed that pollution in Tung Chung is among the worst in all of Hong Kong. Green group Green Power states on its website that: “Tung Chung has the highest air pollution index compared with other areas of Hong Kong, in terms of both number of days and hours when the air pollution index exceeds official standards. Even more shocking is that the air quality of Tung Chung is worse than Kwai Chung and Kwun Tung, which are chock-full of industrial buildings.” 

“You have got polluted air coming down from the PRD getting caught against Lantau and aggregating there, as well as the issue of the aircraft,” Merrin Pearse of the Living Islands Movement explains. “But it is not just the airport; it is more the way that the air builds up in that area with the air coming down from the PRD. Tung Chung is between two major shipping channels, so there is also the issue of ships and boats creating air pollution.” 

Here in DB, of course, we create our own pollution, with Thomas outlining the ferries, buses and other vehicles, even the Disneyland fireworks, as preventable sources. “The ferries are using dirty fuels; they are now perhaps slightly better but you have to hold your nose at the pier,” he says. “Ferries should use ultra-clean fuels and/ or onshore electric power at berth.”

DB’s buses use Euro fuel and operate to European emission standards but Amy is concerned that there is nothing
to regulate vehicles entering from outside. “One of the best things about DB is that it is supposed to be a carfree and pollution-free area but during recent years, you can see construction trucks coming in,” she says.

Amy is also pushing that all DB golf carts are converted to either electric or hybrid. “The COC has had a plan to change the golf carts to electric for many years,” she says, “but there has been no improvement at all, they still use gasoline.”

On the upside, Edwin Rainbow, a longtime member of the Environmental Protection Sub-committee, is quick to point out the positives of living in DB, notably the eco-initiatives constantly being advocated by informed residents.

“Hillgrove Village, in its current renovation project, is considering if an investment in solar panels to drive LED lighting in the common areas can self-finance over time,” he says. “On a big enough scale in Hong Kong, such small projects, carefully integrated with other renewable energy supply initiatives, can add up to have a positive effect on air quality.”

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