What's in the water?
It’s summer in the city and you want to venture out to the beach for a swim. But is it wise to enter the water given what invisible dangers may be lurking beneath the surface? In an effort to uncover what’s really going on, Jason Wincuinas and Leon Lee investigate whether our beaches are safe to swim in, and to what lengths the government has gone to clean them up. Illustrated by Timothy McEvenue
On a balmy morning at Lido Beach in Tsuen Wan a small group of local seniors are enjoying some welcome rest and relaxation. Some are playing volleyball, a few are sun-bathing, while others are swimming in the cool waters. Framed by the spectacular backdrop of the Ting Kau and Tsing Ma bridges, and with the sun shining high above, this looks like a typical day at the beach in Hong Kong. Picturesque, it seems, despite the fact that this particular beach is officially closed to the general public. For over ten years now, Lido Beach, together with seven neighbouring beaches along the Rambler Channel in this district, has been deemed a health hazard, singled out by the government for its poor, and potentially dangerous, water quality.
Back at Lido, and Mr Wong, a septuagenarian, is ready to enter the water, unperturbed by a large yellow sign that reads: “Please do not enter the water. This beach is polluted.” Wong, who has been loyal to this beach for more than four decades, says defiantly, “We will continue to come here and swim. Rain or shine, we still come.” Mr Wong says even his doctor sees no danger: “I’ve been swimming here for so many years and don’t have any problems. Every year I go to the doctor for a check up and he tells me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Lido Beach, known as one of our city’s worst, is perhaps not a fair representation of the overall situation. But even so, on the whole, Hong Kong beaches are rarely afforded great reputations. Take the fact that in the year of the handover only 63 per cent of our beaches were even rated as ‘fair’ by the government. Or the constant anecdotal fears that – much like the air around us – the city’s surrounding waters have increasingly fallen victim to China’s industrial boom. Or add to that the regular, material reminder that our beaches leave much to desire – in the form of floating plastic bags, Coke bottles, or used condoms. With all these anecdotes, fears, and perceived threats, how can Mr Wong – and ocean-loving people like him – so confidently brave these waters? Or is it actually not that bad?
To the average Hongkonger, the concerns about the safety of our beach water flow from many fronts. And perhaps the most relentless reminder is aesthetic. Garbage and detritus has long been a problem, mainly because of the nearby location of factories in the region – as well as Hongkongers’ lax attitude to littering. Hong Kong’s Marine Department reports collecting 12,000 tonnes of floating refuse annually, and last year the South China Morning Post reported that the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department picked up an additional 15,500 tonnes. That’s not even mentioning the work of NGOs, like the Green Council, whose International Coastal Cleanup last year collected more than 7,000kg worth of junk – mostly food wrappers and plastic bottles – from the territory’s shorelines. And as Seba Sheavly, an environmental consultant, points out: “Debris respects no state or national boundaries. It will float anywhere.” It’s a sobering thought. More alarmingly still is that according to Doug Woodring, director of Project Kaisei, an organisation studying both the scale and impact of marine debris, “80 per cent of the garbage floating in the water comes from the land.” A recipient of the Hong Kong Earth Champion Award in 2008, Woodring says that everything from trash left behind in the mountains to wastes from Guangdong can end up in our coastal waters.
Sure, a plastic bottle floating past you in the water might spoil your serenity slightly, but Woodring also warns that there are potentially toxic consequences to that vessel as well. “As the plastics breakdown, they get ingested by sea life, which absorb the toxins,” he says. It leads to bio-magnification, where toxins build up in sea life as bigger fish eat smaller fish, until one ends up on your dinner plate. It’s a similar affect from the industrial chemicals that seep into our waterways and oceans from the SAR and beyond. Nico Zurcher, a Hong Kong University Research Assistant who is consulting on the government’s Water Quality Objectives, concurs: “That’s the real risk with industrial chemicals in the water,” he explains. “The concentrations you encounter while swimming really aren’t enough to affect you. The health risk is from ingesting toxins as part of the food chain.”
Thankfully, the levels of these industrially sourced compounds have seen a sharp decline in recent years. In the past, heavy metals had been recorded in sediments and there’s a history of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which show up in the tissue of local marine life. However, both the government and industry have acted together to make these levels more acceptable, at least according to Zurcher. “There used to be a lot of photographic chemical industry here,” says Zurcher. “Silver, a surprisingly toxic heavy metal, was a substantial component.” The digital age dried up film processing demands, and with the decay of that business model, the threat has diminished significantly.
Toxins and plastic, though, are both big, fat red herrings. “Your greatest concern is sewage discharge,” says Zurcher. Ultimately this means that the real test of water quality lies with bacterium. It’s essentially a fecal problem, and one that can cause flu, diarrhoea, skin rash, hepatitis, respiratory disease or eye, ear and nose infections, as well as all the other nasty symptoms people usually associate with dirty water.
So how does the government go about sorting this problem out? The Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department (EPD) gauges beach cleanliness by checking the level of E. Coli bacteria on a regular basis. The EPD collects water samples from gazetted (managed) beaches on a weekly basis (as well as cleans them three times a month) and rates them accordingly on a scale that range from ‘good’ (less than 24 E. coli colonies per 100ml of water) to ‘very poor’ (over 610 E.coli colonies per 100ml of water) – which leads to closure. A ‘good’ rating essentially reduces the chances of falling ill to an undetectable level, while a ‘very poor’ rating pushes that figure up to somewhere nearer to 1.5/100 cases and higher. One of the more alarming figures released by the government shows that in 1997 Ting Kau beach in Tsuen Wan (which has been closed ever since) had an E.coli count of around 1583 to every 100mL of water. Even though that has now been reduced significantly in 2009 to around 145 that is still within the realms of being technically unsafe. Therefore, going by international standards, Hong Kong’s system is more in-depth than those of most other countries. And the assessments over the past decade or so have shown quite remarkable results. Things are definitely improving.
Ninety-three per cent of our beaches received a ‘good’ or ‘fair’ annual grade in 2009 – a record high for Hong Kong beaches – and a marked 30 per cent improvement on the 1997 levels. Add to that a 90 per cent improvement over the last eight years in the Eastern Harbour’s E.Coli levels, and there’s significant reason to be optimistic about our beaches’ future. Zurcher credits this improvement to Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS), a government program that led to the construction of a 23.6 km-long system of tunnels deep underground for sewage disposal. “For this type of plant, it’s the biggest in the world,” he says. Since 2001, 75 per cent of harbour area sewage, from Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, has been diverted through HATS. And the upcoming second step (known as HATS Stage 2A) includes further disinfecting of effluent and extension of the public sewers along Castle Peak Road, which should spread the purifying love further around our waterways and beaches.
As more projects take shape the area is expected to improve substantially, and with that next phase of Harbour Area Treatment Scheme still to come, it should result in even cleaner water. As far as enjoying Hong Kong’s beaches go, the prognosis, by most accounts, is pretty good – and getting better. So what are you still reading this for? The summer’s here, so get out there and hit the beach.