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As part of the 2020 Chief Executive Policy Address, Carrie Lam has set a target for Hong Kong to become carbon neutral by 2050. In the address, Lam said that the government will aim to achieve carbon neutrality through a variety of means, including exploring new environmentally-friendly technology, enhancing the energy efficiency of buildings, promoting zero-carbon vehicles and building large-scale waste-to-energy facilities. 

Lam adds that to lower the cost of achieving carbon neutrality, “we need to reduce the demand for energy by setting more stringent energy efficient standards.” Green finance would be pursued and developed “to build a low-carbon economy which is more resilient to climate change.”

Lam says, “We also need to enlist the full support of various sectors in society to adopt low-carbon lifestyles and economic transformation,” as she appealed for all sectors to work together in achieving the ambitious goal. 

What is Happening?

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The Hong Kong government will update the “Hong Kong’s Climate Action Plan” in the middle of next year to set out more proactive strategies and measures to reduce carbon emissions and become carbon neutral.

Hong Kong-based charity Friends of the Earth welcomes the “Report on Public Engagement on Long-term Decarbonisation Strategy” published by the Council for Sustainable Development, but says that it “fails to see how the [carbon neutrality] goal is achievable given the lack of concrete, aggressive actions.” It offers six recommendations, namely:

Nestled deep within one of the many bays of the Pearl River delta, a rare patch of mangroves can be found hidden between the towering skyscrapers on the Hong Kong – Shenzhen border. Egrets laze in the sun as small crabs scuttle at their feet, a mountainous skyline of construction cranes looming behind them.

Mangroves are small trees that grow along the coastlines of more than 100 countries in tropical and subtropical regions. They were once widespread on the Pearl River delta and around the inlets and islands of the neighbouring Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Now there are only about 60 small patches remaining in Hong Kong – the largest is at Mai Po, at the head of Deep Bay (also known as Shenzhen Bay).

Protected by the Mai Po Nature Reserve, this mangrove forest and the surrounding mudflats has been designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention since 1995. It is part of a Hong Kong success story, albeit a limited one. After years of degradation, a recent survey conducted by Dr Stefano Cannicci from Hong Kong University’s Integrated Mangrove Ecology Lab found that mangroves are now making a recovery in the region.

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hong kong geopark
A single mangrove colonises the muddy edges of Hong Kong’s Kam Tin River. A new channel for the river was constructed along Nam Sang Wai in 1997. To compensate for the disruption this caused to the area’s wetlands, and to strengthen the riverbanks, species of mangrove were planted along the channel. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)

This goes against the general trend. Over the past 50 years, 50% of the world’s mangroves have been lost. This is due to a combination of factors, including coastal reclamation, urbanisation, unsustainable aquaculture practices and pollution.

A decade ago, the rate of loss was between 1% and 2% every year. Things have improved slightly since then – the rate is now between 0.3% and 0.6% a year – thanks to stronger recognition of the ecological benefits of mangroves and expanded management and protection. But Associate Professor Daniel Friess from the National University of Singapore cautions against being overly optimistic, telling Science Daily that “conservation gains are not evenly spread, nor guaranteed in the future”.

This caution should apply to Hong Kong as well. With space limited, urban development looms ever on the horizon. This is clearly in evidence in Starfish Bay in the New Territories, where a new housing development towers over the beach. Long-time resident Mr So is only too aware of the issues: “There’s too much pollution, and look at all these new buildings that have been built nearby. It’s changed so much.”

man working hong kong
Mr So untangles a fishing net on Starfish Bay beach. Fish haven’t been easy to catch since the new tower blocks behind him were built. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)

The loss of mangroves means more than just the loss of another species of plant. Walking through the Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong at low tide, it’s clear how important this ecosystem is. The tangled, gnarly roots are teeming with life, a haven between fish ponds and exposed mudflats.

But the benefits of mangrove forests go much wider. As Eddie Leung, assistant manager of WWF’s Mai Po Habitat and Infrastructure programme, explains, when seen as a nature-based solution, the ecosystem “addresses coastal erosion, prevents typhoon damage, provides a rich nursery for biodiversity, and more recently, is known for storing carbon”. For people who live in low-lying areas, this means the trees not only help protect their homes from flooding, but also provide a source of income through the fish stocks they nurture.

To conserve mangroves, protected areas and restoration projects are vital. But for mangroves in Hong Kong to continue to recover, and for these coastal forests to start making a come-back elsewhere – including on the Chinese mainland – best practice needs to be followed. Reserves need to be properly monitored and policed. And planting should only occur in areas suitable for mangroves, using only suitable local species. To this end, the exchange of scientific knowledge is key – a cooperation established in 2012 between the Mai Po Nature Reserve and the Shenzhen Futian Mangrove Ecological Park is a good example of this.

What’s happening in Hong Kong shows there is hope for mangroves. But much more needs to be done if we want to prevent this vital coastal ecosystem from disappearing by the end of the century.

tai o fishing village
A floating fish farm in Three Fathoms Cove, home to one of the few remaining areas of mangroves in Hong Kong. If practised sustainably, aquaculture can benefit from the ecosystem services mangroves provide. A richly biodiverse habitat, these intertidal forests offer a safe haven for fish to breed and raise their young, and also help clean the water of pollutants. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
hong kong housing tower complex
Not far from Three Fathoms Cove at Starfish Bay, a newly built housing complex towers over the beach. At high tide, the water reaches the thin strip of mangroves providing a buffer between the beach and the buildings. Originally named after its rich biodiversity, starfish are no longer easy to find in the bay due to rapid urban development. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
lai chi wo hong kong mangroves
Directly north of Three Fathoms Cove at Lai Chi Wo, a remote part of the Plover Cove Country Park, a patch of unprotected mangroves thrives in mudflats, seen here exposed at low tide. Hong Kong University researcher Brian Morton has described this patch as “the most intact mangrove in all of China”, recommending it be protected as a World Heritage Site. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
woman working tai o
This elderly resident of Tai O, a fishing village on the western side of Hong Kong on Lantau island, sells traditional salted fish for a living. A decline in the number of tourists over the past year due to Covid-19 means she’s only able to sell about a third of what she used to on a good day. “But I have enough to eat,” she says. Fishing around Tai O benefitted greatly when a new patch of mangroves was planted on abandoned salt pans next to the village between 2005 and 2007. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
tai o stilt houses
With its stilt houses and extensive waterways, Tai O is often referred to as the Venice of Hong Kong. The village’s 2,300 residents have, in the past, had to flee their homes to escape flooding during typhoon season. The Yim Tin mangrove forest was planted next to the village to help prevent coastal erosion, part of efforts to address this problem of flooding. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
mangroves hong kong
Part of a project to compensate for mangroves lost during the construction of Hong Kong’s international airport on the northern side of Lantau island, the forest was planted in 2005-2007, and has brought many benefits to the village of Tai O. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
shrimp pools hong kong
“Gei wai” shrimp ponds were introduced to Hong Kong in the 1940s by migrants from mainland China. A traditional aquaculture practice, the ponds were constructed by digging out the mud around stands of mangroves and creating embankments to keep the water in. Gates on the seaward side of the ponds allowed for the regular inflow and outflow of tidal water. The mangroves were kept to help harbour baby shrimp until they were ready to harvest. The Mai Po reserve is home to Hong Kong’s last remaining gei wai ponds – they are no longer in use, but are maintained by the reserve for their historical importance. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
hong kong mangroves
Mangroves are highly tolerant to salt, using different mechanisms to extract the fresh water they need from the seawater they live in. Their complex root systems are also adept at binding the sediment brought in by the rising tide. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue)
shenzhen mangroves
Across the Mai Po mudflats, the high-rise buildings of Shenzhen are a hard-to-miss reminder of urban spread along this coastline. A less visible threat to the Mai Po mangroves are invasive species. The fast-growing Mangrove Apple (Sonneratia caseolaris) is a non-local species that was originally planted in the Futian Nature Reserve on the Shenzhen side of Deep Bay as a quick way to restore the mangrove forests there. The species has since invaded the Mai Po reserve, where regular clearance efforts are needed to prevent it overtaking native mangroves. To address the issue, Futian and Mai Po have also formed a collaboration, holding regular workshops and exchanging data. (Image: Katherine Cheng / China Dialogue).

This article was originally published on China Dialogue, written by Katherine Cheng, and is republished here as part of an editorial agreement with Earth.Org.

Featured image by: Flickr

The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department discovered more than 10 tons of endangered, protected red sandalwood hidden in a shipping container with an estimated value of USD$774 000. The container was on its way from the Middle East to mainland China via Hong Kong.

The haul of suspected red sandalwood is the biggest seizure of its kind this year, according to the customs department, and the third major seizure of the wood in the last 6 months. The case has been given to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department for a follow-up investigation but no arrests have been made so far. 

Red sandalwood, also known as “red gold,” is extremely valuable and is often used to make luxury furniture and carvings. It is listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) list. In Hong Kong, importing or exporting endangered wood without a permit carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a HKD$10 million fine. 

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In August, more than 3 tons of red sandalwood valued at HKD$1.8 million was found hidden in a container on its way from South Korea to China via Hong Kong. In April, nearly 8 tons of the wood worth around HKD$5.5 million were found concealed inside furniture in two shipping containers from India, also bound for China. 

A 2018 report called “Trading in Extinction,” compiled by various NGOs and groups, including the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group, Civic Exchange, Hong Kong Shark Foundation, University of Hong Kong and WWF-Hong Kong, found that between 2013 and 2017, there were 40 seizures comprising 239 Megatons of red sandalwood. It also found that sandalwoods were the most regularly traded wood species throughout this period.

While the customs department should be applauded for making the find, more stringent checks need to be made at the country of origin to ensure that these groups working illegally to smuggle protected plants and animals cannot do their work and the demand for these products ends.

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons 

A Greenpeace study in Hong Kong has found that nearly one-third of the city’s supply of beef comes from Brazilian ranches located in deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest.

The survey, conducted in August, found that imported beef from Marfrig, JBS and Minerva Foods, meat packers that represent nearly half of the cattle slaughtered in the Amazon, is being sold in at least one major supermarket chain in Hong Kong. 

Frances Yeung Hoi-shan, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says to the South China Morning Post, “Some of the supply chains are like ‘beef laundering’. The smaller ranchers that farm on destroyed Amazon forest land sell to other ranchers, who then sell to larger farms, before it ends up with consumers. This means beef from ranches on destroyed forest land is mixed in with beef from other farms that are not on deforested areas.”

Hong Kong and China are the top two destinations for Brazilian beef, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In 2017, Hong Kong imported 780 000 tons of frozen beef and offal, of which 53% came from Brazil. 60% of this beef in Brazil came from the three meat packers, which is how Greenpeace arrived at its figure of 30% of beef consumed by Hong Kongers coming from these three companies.

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Cattle ranchers, loggers and farmers in Brazil often set fire to the Amazon rainforest to clear land for their activities. The pace of deforestation has increased rapidly since President Jair Bolsonaro came into power. He says that farming and mining in the forest is the only way to lift the country out of poverty.

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that 796 square kilometers of forest were cut down during the first three months of this year. A third of the devastation happened on land including national forests and conservation areas, which in general have become targets for land grabbers eager for big profits. According to the Institute, reports of deforestation were up 51% between January and March as compared to 2019.

According to the SCMP, while Yata and City’super responded to Greenpeace saying that they “rarely” sold Brazilian beef, ParknShop, one of the biggest supermarket chains in the city, said it sourced a “small portion” of beef from JBS and would switch to other suppliers once its current stock had sold out.

Hong Kong is already being affected by the climate crisis, seen in reports that this summer was the hottest since records began in 1884. The number of “very hot days” recorded this year has already reached 43, 32.8 days above the annual norm.

Hidden behind its urban facade, Hong Kong is home to numerous nature reserves. In fact, 75% of Hong Kong land is actually rural and nearly pristine- making the stark contrast between skyscrapers and nature even more alluring. Here are 10 nature reserves and natural landmarks in Hong Kong that you need to visit. 

1. Tai Mo Shan Country Park

Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest mountain, has a height of 957 meters and its surrounding country park holds the record for the highest rainfall and coldest temperatures in the region. The country park is also home to the city’s tallest waterfall, at 35 meters in length. 

The park is also home to more than 100 species of birds and butterflies, as well as snakes, like the bamboo snake, which occasionally makes an appearance along the hiking trails. 

2. Kam Shan Country Park

Known as a monkey haven and located in the North of Kowloon, Kam Shan Country Park is the perfect habitat for macaque monkeys, who are notorious for stealing food straight from visitors’ hands. The park includes four reservoirs, all of which were built and completed in the early 1900s- namely, Kowloon Reservoir, Shek Lei Pui Reservoir,  Kowloon Reception Reservoir and  Kowloon Byewash Reservoir. 

The country park also holds historic value. A section of the former British military defence system, Gin Drinker’s Line, intercepts Kam Shan and runs along the mountains of the Kowloon Peninsula, spanning a total length of 18 kilometers. Built in the late 1930s, the defensive line is in fact a series of defence bunkers linked together by paths featuring concrete fortified machine gun posts, trenches and artiliterry batteries.

3. Tai Po Kau Special Area

An ideal area to spot local species of flora and fauna, the less recreational and more preserved forest allows visitors to seek refuge from the dense city. Tai Po Kau Special Area is recognised by the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society as one of the best places to observe rare birds and insects.

4. Lion Rock Country Park

Not far from Kam Shan Country Park sits Lion Rock Country Park in the New Territories, spanning an area of 557 hectares and including two famous peaks: Lion Rock and Amah Rock. The hiking trail is challenging and steep, however the views along the way and at the top are worth the exertion. Amah Rock is the first peak and smaller rock formation in comparison to Lion Rock, the second and taller peak.

5. Hong Kong Wetland Park 

Hong Kong Wetland Park is located in the New Territories and has become a hub of conservation, eco-tourism and education due to the efforts taken to protect a variety of species that roam there. Among many of the animals residing in the region is Pui Pui the crocodile, Hong Kong’s lovable reptilian mascot, who attracts many tourists and locals alike.

Also considered a reserve, Hong Kong Wetland Park specialises in ecological monitoring and habitat management, and provides information on different species in order to increase awareness on the importance of biodiversity conservation. 

The stream walk, mangrove boardwalk, the bird hideouts and fish ponds make this wetland park an all-encompassing wildlife conservation site. 

6. Mai Po Nature Reserve 

Managed by WWF Hong Kong since 1983, the 380 hectare nature reserve is home to thousands of migratory waterbirds and a variety of wetland habitats including gei wais, mangroves, intertidal mudflats and reedbeds. 

Because of the biodiversity, the Mai Po Nature Reserve and the surrounding Inner Deep Bay wetlands are examples of the successful conservation efforts in Hong Kong.

7. Kiu Tsui Country Park

Resembling Thailand for its tropical scenery, the Kiu Tsui Country Park in Sai Kung includes beautiful white sandy beaches that resemble those typically seen at holiday destinations. A private ferry service along the Sai Kung promenade transports visitors to Hap Mun Bay or Kiu Tsui, also known as Sharp Island, where a day out in the sun can be enjoyed.

8. East Dam of High Island Reservoir 

One of the most popular sites within the Hong Kong Geopark is High Island in Sai Kung Peninsula, known for its spectacular rock formations which formed around 140 million years ago. 

The High Island Geo Trail tours the region and leads to the shore, where a sea cave lies at the water’s edge. From there, a wooden boardwalk leads to a lookout point that shows visitors the beautiful region devoid of human settlement.

Completed in the 1970s, the East Dam is located on the east side of the Kwun Mun Channel and encompasses a forgotten fishing village that is now submerged.

9. Lantau South Country Park

One of the two country parks on Lantau Island, Lantau South Country Park spans approximately 56 square kilometres and borders with Lantau North Country Park.

Lantau peak, the highest summit on the island in Lantau South Country Park, is known for being the perfect spot to watch the sunrise and sunset, and attracts locals and tourists alike for this very reason. 

The park also includes activities such as camping, fishing, swimming and biking, making it an adventurer’s paradise.

10. Tai Tam Country Park

Tai Tam Country Park is the largest park on Hong Kong Island and comprises one fifth of the Island’s land mass, spanning a total area of 1 315 hectares

The Tai Tam Waterworks Heritage Trail includes 21 historic waterworks, including aqueducts, dams and masonry bridges, of which many have been declared monuments. The trail spans 5 kilometers, is family-friendly and takes approximately two hours to complete. 

In addition to the waterworks trail, the country park includes an array of other hiking trails that vary in difficulty levels. 

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Hong Kong has more to offer than what meets the eye. Known as one of the business epicenters of Asia, and regarded for its tall skyscrapers, Hong Kong also maintains beautiful nature reserves, with mountainous landscapes, beautiful wetlands, country parks, historic sites and more- making the city a diverse concrete jungle. 

Plastic Free Seas, a Hong Kong-based environmental charity, is calling for an investigation into the source of the black granule microplastics which have been washing up onto the beach in Discovery Bay since late July. A cleanup operation resulted in the recovery of over two tons of the black crumb-like material, as well as other debris. 

The NGO has expressed their frustrations with the lack of a coordinated emergency response and investigation by the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) and other departments in Hong Kong. It says that after a 2012 incident in which 150 tons of plastic pellets fell into the ocean from a container ship, as well as a palm oil spill in 2017, this need is ever more important. 

While Clean Shorelines, an Interdepartmental Working Group, was set up after the pellet spill, the group focuses on cleanup rather than investigation, penalties and incident prevention.

From an internal investigation, Plastic Free Seas found that the microplastics material appears to be rubber infill used in AstroTurf, similar to that used on the North Plaza pitch in Discovery Bay. Infill from the pitch has been seen in and around storm drains which surround the pitch. 

Dana Winograd, director of operations at Plastic Free Seas, says, “Even with the obvious and significant amounts of infill which can be seen in drains less than 200m away from the water’s edge, there is still corporate denial of any responsibility for the problem and there has been no attempt to even remove the infill from the drains to prevent further pollution.” 

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plastic free seas microplastics

The rubber crumbs collected by the Plastic Free Seas team (Source: provided by Plastic Free Seas).

This infill is typically made from ground up tyres, from which chemicals and heavy metals make their way into seawater. 

Winograd says, “In the world of plastic marine pollution, there is often too much focus on cleanup and managing plastic pollution and not enough real action taken on prevention. A government investigation is slow and ongoing, and only as a result of a significant push from Plastic Free Seas. We need the government to find out the source of this problem, ensure that the ongoing pollution problem at this pitch is solved, and also to assess all the synthetic pitches in Hong Kong and mandate best practices for management to ensure the rubber crumb infill does not continue to pollute our seas and waterways.

More broadly, PFS has also urged the government for more transparency and communication with supporting NGOs. 

This article comes from the frontline activities of Plastic Free Seas, whose mission is to reduce plastic pollution in Hong Kong and beyond through education and action.

About Plastic Free Seas

Plastic Free Seas is a Hong Kong-based environmental charity focused on changing the way we all view and use plastics in society today, through education and action campaigns. Learn more at www.plasticfreeseas.org

This article comes from the frontline activities of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong, whose mission it is to advocate, facilitate and participate in effective conservation of Asian wildlife, with an emphasis on Chinese white dolphins and giant pandas. 

Ocean Park Conservation Foundation Hong Kong (OPCFHK) has announced the details of its 2020-21 Conservation Funding Projects, pledging over HK$3.43 million to support 13 new studies. 

The selected projects involve more than 30 species with urgent conservation needs in eight Asian countries and regions, all of which focus on marine conservation and combating illegal trading of threatened species. Hong Kong-led projects include a first-of-its-kind computer program for automated facial recognition of the humphead wrasse, and genetic-based research of dried tokay geckos.

Michael Boos, Foundation Director of OPCFHK, says, “Illegal wildlife trade continues to be one of the most significant threats to biodiversity globally, and this is even happening in Hong Kong at our very own doorstep. In particular, some threatened wildlife species are considered to have edible and medicinal values in the city. Given the urgency of conservation efforts, it is critical that OPCFHK supports research studies which contribute to the effective combat of illegal trading and that also have measurable conservation outcomes.”

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The foundation says that conservation efforts can be misdirected if no solid evidence can be provided about a traded species’ place of origin. A new Hong Kong-led study will be conducted to combat the illegal trading of humphead wrasses. The research proposes developing a computer program for automated facial recognition of the humphead wrasse, which can later be tested in Hong Kong’s local seafood markets and eventually be adopted by local government departments and other countries for illegal trading regulation enforcement.

Another local project proposes genetic-based research to determine the geographic origin of dried tokay geckos sold in traditional Chinese medicine markets, which can improve the current genetic diversity of the species in Asia.

Dr Timothy Bonebrake, says, “Tokay geckos are frequently observed in Hong Kong’s markets, dried flat on sticks and used in soups to prevent lung problems. The vast numbers seen might lead one to believe that tokay geckos are an infinite resource. In reality, reports indicate that millions of tokay geckos are traded every year, to the point where the species was added to Annex II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in 2019 to prevent further endangerment. OPCFHK’s funding will help us conduct the research required to fill in this knowledge gap, using a combination of conservation forensics tools and field work to determine the origins of market geckos and how local tokay geckos in Hong Kong are affected by this global trade.”

Finally, a regional study of Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales conducted at The Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences will shed light on the endangered species’ seasonal distribution to define a potential ‘area of conflict’ with the wider industry. This is the first systematic survey to study their population, which will make use of satellite tracking to define migratory routes and winter grounds for this remarkable marine mammal.

About the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation

The OPCFHK works to advocate, facilitate and participate in effective conservation of Asian wildlife, with an emphasis on Chinese white dolphins and giant pandas. It achieves this goal through partnerships, fundraising, research and education. Since its inception 25 years ago, the foundation has allocated over HK$90.2 million to fund 514 research projects on cetaceans, giant pandas and many other species.

Find out more about OPCFHK’s conservation research funding at: https://www.opcf.org.hk/en/conservation-research/research-funding/2020-21-projects. 

Featured image supplied by: Ocean Park Conservation Foundation

Hong Kong ’s drainage system and rain tunnel network protect the city from once-disastrous flooding caused by seasonal typhoons. Will they be strong enough to endure the effects of the climate crisis? 

Part of a pioneering, US$3.8 billion (HK$30 billion) drainage system, Hong Kong ’s giant rain tunnel network has saved the city from floods that decades ago cost lives and caused widespread destruction. 

Drainage engineer Alex Lau, says, “This tunnel intercepts about one third of the rainfall for the northern Hong Kong area. We have about 34 intakes and all the intercepted water will be diverted into the tunnel and carried all the way to the sea.”

Two massive tunnel-boring machines helped dig out the rain tunnel network in Hong Kong, which took five years to complete, beginning in 2007. The 10.5 km tunnel has solved a pressing problem facing the concrete jungle: extreme rainfall. Hong Kong receives about 2,400 millimeters of rain a year, according to the Drainage Services Department (DSD), with about 80% of it falling during the summer months. 

Vibrant Underground Environment 

Prior to the rain drainage tunnel, Hong Kong already featured vibrant underground tunnel environments, from the city’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system to roads which cut through mountainous landscape. The West Drainage Tunnel runs through the hills behind the city and, unbeknownst to most citizens, is located less than a dozen meters below the surface. 

Engineers had to remove insecure ground above the tunnel to prevent water seeping through and infiltrating the system. Furthermore, to tackle the difficulties that coincide with building such a tunnel network, it was built from the bottom up, collating gravel and debris out of subterranean platforms- this also helped limit disruption at street level. 

Frequent Flooding 

Hong Kong summers are hot and humid, starting in June and ending in September, with high temperatures, strong typhoons and frequent rainstorms. 

The colour-coded warning system for rainstorms, issued by the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO), notifies millions of residents on what precautions to take during a particular weather signal. Introduced in 1967, the alerts specifically warn the public to avoid unnecessary travel due to the danger of road accidents, or potential landslides caused by rain in the more mountainous parts of the city. 

When a black rain warning is issued, defined when more than 70 millimeters of rain falls per hour, schools and workplaces shut. Though only minor flooding occurs during black rain thanks to the giant underground tunnels, in the past they caused catastrophe across the city.

In September 1906, Hong Kong was hit with one of its deadliest typhoons, which killed approximately 15 000 people- 5% of the city’s then population of 320 000. Thousands lost their homes and the city spent millions on water damage repair and control. 

In the past, Hong Kong suffered hundreds of fatalities due to tropical cyclones and improper infrastructure in place to help manage the effects of such disasters. Heavy urbanisation only furthered flood-relating problems due to natural, soluble ground of grass and mud being paved over by concrete and tarmac- which, rather than absorbing rainwater, allows for accumulation that eventually leads to flooding. This presented a difficult predicament for Hong Kong- as the financial industry was growing due to urbanisation and industrialisation, the health and safety of the public during tropical cyclones was under significant threat. 

Flood Prevention Strategy 

Hong Kong uses a three-pronged strategy to mitigate the risk of flooding from heavy rains. Since 1995, the DSD has spent $3.8 billion on various projects, including the installation of drainage systems spanning 2 400 kilometers in length, 360 kilometers of river channels, four vast underground tunnels spanning 21 kilometers and four storm water tanks. Currently, another 11 tanks are being constructed. 

The Hong Kong West Drainage Tunnel is the largest of the four and runs from the mountains above Tin Hau, past the financial districts of Admiralty and Central, to Cyberport. At its widest point, the tunnel is 7.25 meters in diameter. Pumps are engaged at times of heavy flow, otherwise gravity assists in carrying water downwards. 

Other solutions include dykes to protect rural villages and channels dug to temporarily store water. These solutions that direct rainwater away from vulnerable areas to the ocean, have helped reduce the number of flooding blackspots from 126 in 1995, to just five today- as pointed out by a government paper published last March. 

Racecourse Storage 

Below Hong Kong’s Happy Valley Racecourse resides one of the city’s largest storage tanks which, at its fullest, can hold up to 60 000 square meters of water- the equivalent to 24 standard swimming pools. In addition to protecting the racecourse itself, neighbouring expensive real estate has also been spared from experiencing flooding since the tank’s creation in 2012. 

Happy Valley is also indicative of the DSD’s future plans to recycle rainwater citywide. Some of the water that falls on the racecourse is collected and reused for irrigation and to flush toilets in nearby housing estates.  

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hong kong rain tunnels
Water pours into the Happy Valley rainwater storage tank during a storm (Credit: HK Drainage Services Department). 

The Climate Crisis 

The achievement of Hong Kong’s flood-management system cannot be overstated. Following the disastrous Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018, the Hong Kong Observatory’s senior scientific officer Ping-Wah Li told CNN that, as a result of global warming, “rain from tropical cyclones will increase … and sea levels will continue to rise, increasing the threat of storm surges and coastal inundations.”

Though some work has been achieved to bolster Hong Kong defenses, Edward Ng, professor of architecture at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, noted that more investment is required in order to properly defend the coast. He says, “The design standard is based on past history. It can cope with what happened thirty years ago, but not with what will happen in the next fifty years.” This view is shared by other engineers in the city.

Potential design solutions include porous pavements, protected wetlands, rain gardens and green rooftops- all of which can help absorb rainfall.  Dubbed “sponge cities”, which feature these developments, have already been tried in mainland China with some proven success.  

Blue-Green Infrastructure 

The DSD has launched the internationally recognised ISO 14001 Environmental Management System to manage an internal operation of establishing a blue-green system, set targets and indicators, implement plans to enhance environmental sustainability and subsequently bring long-term economic benefits to DSD9. 

The Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) engaged experts in April 2019 to conduct research on storm surges and waves in order to examine the impacts of extreme weather conditions on vulnerable areas in Hong Kong. Based on the findings of this study, the government has stated it will formulate ‘appropriate protection measures, including improvement works and management measures etc, to mitigate the impact of extreme weather and climate change on the low-lying coastal or windy areas’. 

Architects have recommended that Hong Kong alter its infrastructure to become more green, like developing porous pavements, protected wetlands, rain gardens, and green rooftops, all of which can help absorb rainfall. So-called “sponge cities” have already been trialed in China, with some success.

Water Crisis

Even as the climate crisis leads to rising sea levels and serious flooding in parts of the world, it also has a major impact on global water resources, with the number of countries dealing with extreme water crisis growing.

DSD’s senior engineer, Richard Leung, suggested that greater measures are needed to tackle rainfall, beyond simply intercepting and diverting it and extending to more sustainable tactics such as storing, purifying and reusing it- efforts which would subsequently reduce the pressure on existing water resources and help overcome future complications that result from the climate crisis. 

Currently, some rain is collected to be reused for irrigation and flushing water in Hong Kong, however most is dumped back into the sea- a devastating practice for a city which imports over 70% of its freshwater from mainland China. With rising temperatures comes greater water-insecurity, and Hong Kong has the potential to avert such an outcome through better rainfall use. 

“In the past, we just discharged, but now we’re talking about using the water as much as possible,” Leung said. “We don’t know exactly how it is changing, but we know the climate is changing, so we have to be prepared.” 

Featured image by: cattan2011

Shark fin soup is said to be the food of emperors, but a new study finds this “luxury” dish may not be so favorable to the person who eats it. A team of international researchers discovered that shark fin soup contains high levels of mercury and other heavy metals- in most cases, much higher than what’s legally considered safe for human consumption.

Shark fin soup has a long history in Chinese culture. Emperor Taizu of the Northern Song, who ruled China between 960 and 976, apparently ate shark fin soup to display his power and wealth. From that point on, the dish became a status symbol and much-sought-after food item in China, served throughout the Song dynasty (960-1279), the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). While it briefly disappeared from the menu when the Chinese Communist Party assumed power in 1949, it reemerged in the 1980s as a dish to signify prosperity and good fortune.

Even today, shark fin soup continues to be a popular food choice in China and Hong Kong, and there’s even a growing demand in other Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. In Hong Kong, it’s frequently served as a delicacy at weddings and New Year’s banquets, but you can also find “everyday” versions of the soup at most restaurants.

To feed the insatiable demand for shark fin soup, about 100 million sharks are killed every year, according to one study. While it’s legal to trade the fins of many shark species, other sharks are protected under CITES Appendix II, which only allows trade when special permits have been granted. But CITES regulations have not managed to stop the many illegal parts of the global shark fin trade.

While previous studies have investigated mercury levels in the fins of wild sharks, this study looked at mercury levels in shark fins that have been processed and prepared for sale in China and Hong Kong.

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shark fin soup metals
Shark fin soup. A new study shows that shark fin soup contains levels of mercury not safe for human consumption (Source: Mongabay via Wikipedia Commons).

“The processing sharks fins undergo to be ready to be used in shark fin soup is very secretive and involves different chemicals that might affect mercury concentrations,” Laura García Barcia, a doctoral candidate at Florida International University and the study’s lead author, told Mongabay. “We wanted to assess the mercury present in the final product that goes straight to the consumer. Only one study before us had looked at mercury in processed shark fins but unfortunately, they did not have the resources to analyze the fins at the species level. Ours is the first study on processed shark fins that gives information on mercury levels by species.”

The team took 267 samples of shark fin trimmings — pieces of cartilage, muscle and skin cut off from the main part of a shark’s fin — from nine of the most common shark species that end up in soup bowls, which they distinguished through DNA testing. These included blue sharks (Prionace glauca), silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis), scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), smooth hammerheads (Sphyrna zygaena), bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), shortfin mako sharks (Isurus oxyrinchus), great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran), oceanic whitetips (Carcharhinus longimanus), and several species of blacktip sharks, which they grouped together in what they called the “blacktip complex.” Using nitric acid and a spectrometer, they tested the fin trimmings for mercury and methyl-mercury, an organic, highly toxic form of mercury.

Most shark fins turned out to have five to 10 times more mercury the legal maximum amount of 0.5 parts per million, as indicated by the Hong Kong government’s Centre for Food Safety (CFS), which is similar to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. The highest amount was found in great hammerheads, which had mercury levels of 55.52 parts per million.

“Hammerheads are very large sharks and they are also at the top of the trophic chain,” García Barcia said. “They are sharks that can eat very large prey, and the larger prey you eat, the higher the mercury is. If we had actually looked at great white shark fins, you would have probably seen very high mercury levels also, but for us, the highest predator in our study was the great hammerhead.”

In Hong Kong, great hammerhead fins are considered to be premium products, and sold at prices equivalent to $500 to $1,000 per kilo, according to Demian Chapman, a shark researcher and one of the study’s authors.

Hammerheads “represent the most expensive and most sought after fins in the trade,” Chapman told Mongabay. “Therefore, the most expensive fins on the market also carry the highest risk of mercury toxicity. Banquet hosts often purchase these premium fins or order to honor their guests, which is ironic in light of their particular toxicity.”

Mercury enters the ocean, and into sharks’ bodies, in a variety of ways. It can come from natural sources like volcanoes, and from human activities such as gold mining, inadequate waste management, and the burning of coal, wood and oil, García Barcia said.

“Mercury in surface ocean waters has roughly tripled in the last century,” García Barcia said in an email. “Methyl-mercury biomagnifies through the food web, resulting in top predators accumulating high concentrations of this pollutant.”

“The species in our study are all large-bodied, top predators so we expected to find high amounts of mercury in the tissue samples,” she added. “Mercury concentrations depend on a long list of factors including the diet of the shark, its region of origin and the size at which it was caught.”

Right now, little is known about what mercury levels do to sharks themselves, but some studies show negative impacts of mercury on certain fish species.

“Fish can have problems with swimming performance, it affects their reproduction, the survival of the offspring is greatly reduced,” García Barcia told Mongabay. “But for now, we actually don’t know what the effects are in sharks. We think they are very similar [to other fish species], but sharks have been around for 400 million years, so maybe they just have a way to excrete it.”

While a single bowl of shark fin soup probably wouldn’t seriously affect your health, García Barcia said that prolonged consumption of shark fin soup, and other mercury-rich foods like tuna and swordfish, could lead to brain damage and changes in the central nervous system. If pregnant women consume too much mercury, their babies are more at risk of neurocognitive deficits and neuromotor disabilities.

The Hong Kong CFS website carries information about mercury in shark products, but it’s limited. For instance, there’s a warning that a shark’s tail skin contains mercury levels of 4.16 parts per million, but another page says that “mercury levels in all shark fin samples tested by the Centre for Food Safety were satisfactory” and not above the legal levels.

Gary Stokes, director of operations at Oceans Asia, a Hong Kong-based NGO, has been investigating the shark trade for 20 years, and he said that most consumers don’t realize the health risks attached to shark fins.

“The average person has no idea of the high mercury levels in shark fins,” Stokes told Mongabay. “In fact, very few have any idea of where the dish in front of them came from at all. The barbaric slaughter, the illegal vessel it was likely caught by, most crewed by slaves. Many don’t even connect that it came from an actual shark.”

Besides being high in heavy metals, shark fins tend to be processed with peroxide or bleach, Stokes said. Then they’re laid out to dry on dirty streets, sidewalks, back alleys and rooftops.

“Shark fin traders are laughing and making fools of those who dine on this ‘luxury dish,’” Stokes said. “They know the filthy path these fins have taken to the final ‘fancy bowl of soup.’ In a germaphobic Hong Kong, it baffles me how clueless some people can be. They walk past these fins in the gutter, covered in flies and bacteria, then enter a restaurant and pay US$100 a bowl because they saw a beautiful picture of a golden bowl of shark fin soup.”

Chapman says he believes that once consumers have accurate information about mercury levels in shark fins, demand for the product may go down. “Not everybody’s worried about threatened species, but everybody’s worried about their health,” he said.

The team recently sent the results from the study to Hong Kong’s CFS, although they’re still waiting on a response.

“My expectation is that the government will ramp up its own testing for things that they see in the market right now,” Chapman said. “I believe that they would find the same results that we found in our study, and my expectation is that they will start issuing advisories against eating shark fin soup.”

García Barcia also said the team is working with NGOs in Hong Kong to help spread the word about mercury levels in shark fins.

“Previous campaigns … have focused on the importance of sharks in the ecosystems or how shark populations are declining worldwide,” García Barcia said. “That’s a message that has resonated within younger audiences in Hong Kong, but not necessarily with older people that actually have the purchasing power to drive the demand for shark fin soup. So we think that a health-based approach could actually help resonate with people that … care about their own personal health, and we hope that helps further reduce the demand.”

Featured image by: Nicholas Wang

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Elizabeth Claire Alberts , and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

ReThink Hong Kong is an ambitious two-day business conference taking place in Hong Kong this September that will explore and encourage meaningful partnerships, inspire organisational change and present solutions for a more sustainable economy, society and environment. Earth.Org spoke with ReThink founder, Chris Brown, about the event, the drive for sustainability in Hong Kong and how governments need to inspire consumer action.

The planet is facing unprecedented challenges due to unabated human activity. In order to give future generations a fighting chance of saving the planet, we need to prioritise collective change and shared responsibility through effective and meaningful collaboration. 

Earth.Org: How has COVID-19 Impacted the Organisation of the Event?

Chris Brown: Throughout February and March, things were very up in the air. We are very fortunate to have the partners that we do, who showed the commitment, support and flexibility that allowed us to find new dates in September. Of course, like everyone, we wish that COVID-19 hadn’t happened, but it’s opened up a new perspective for the event and we believe that we will have a more impactful event now; this pandemic shows that just as the effects of the virus are inescapable, so are those of the climate crisis. Unfortunately, there is a lack of comprehension of the severity of the climate crisis globally and in Hong Kong. A report by the Civic Exchange and World Resources Institute found that we need to cut emissions by 6.6% every year until 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement, which really puts a window on how bad the situation is. Their analysis highlights three key areas where Hong Kong has the greatest potential to reduce emissions, namely from improving electricity generation, making buildings more energy efficient and improving sustainability of transport. With the vast number of skyscrapers in Hong Kong and so much traffic on the road, it’s very clear that there is still a lot of work to do. 

However, despite these difficulties, we have still maintained our pledge of all delegate fees going to charity, as our commitment from the beginning has been to stage an impactful event while supporting our chosen NGOs (Feeding Hong Kong and Soap Cycling), which is all the more important in these difficult times. 

Regarding ReThink, we have one of the best speaker line-ups Hong Kong has seen, we have amazing support from our key stakeholders and all attendees are vetted and approved  so it will definitely be a purposeful event, with a delegate list that is authorised and empowered to drive change.

The virus has resulted in a different event to the one we designed 18 months ago – the perspectives will be vastly different because all these businesses have gone through an extremely challenging time and they all have different experiences as to how they have adapted to the pandemic. It’s not a big jump to apply these transformations as a result of COVID-19 to the environmental and social changes that we are asking them to adopt as well.

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What Attracted You to the Environmental Sphere in Hong Kong?

I am a sustainability enthusiast and when I was living in the UK, I had a garden with a composting heap and vegetable garden. The council was also really good at recycling so it was relatively easy to live a sustainable lifestyle which changed a lot when I moved to Hong Kong. It’s not impossible to be sustainable, it’s just extremely difficult. 

I did extensive analysis of sustainability events in Hong Kong (as planning high-value business events is my area of expertise) and what impact they were having. After a lot of consultations and research, where I went out and spoke to businesses about what sustainability means to them, I realised that this is an area lacking credibility in the city. I then decided to create an event that could add value to the existing dialogues by curating a programme that focuses on the ‘how’ not the ‘why’ and bringing together corporate and enterprise stakeholders that want to make a difference. ReThink is not about bringing the who’s who in sustainability, but about bringing in new organisations and making driving sustainable development attractive within your organisation. There are different ways of getting people excited about sustainability: you can show them the risks of standing still or you can show them the opportunities of adapting – the opportunity to run a better business, to engage with your community or to have a more positive impact across your value chain. My hope is that organisations want to change the way they operate as consumer behaviour changes and they’ll rather spend their money with companies who are demonstrating there is another way to operate.

I also hope that the government implements more stringent, and globally proven, regulation so that businesses have to change the way they operate. 

Do You Think That it’s the Government’s Mandate to Encourage Sustainability?

Absolutely. The news that the municipal charging waste scheme has been withdrawn after a decade of debate and negotiations shows that something is wrong. I think I am confident in saying that governments believe that businesses wouldn’t want to pay, but there are proven models around the world that show that businesses will pay if the model is right and effective. 

We could turn the waste problem in Hong Kong into an opportunity for the city to become a regional leader in recycling- there is no reason why the government cannot make the necessary investment into this. There is a saying that “waste is just a resource in the wrong place;” if we put the infrastructure in and provide businesses with incentives to opt in to these services, we can create a whole new economy in Hong Kong, one that creates jobs and provides revenue. 

An example of this is a partnership between Baguio and Swire Beverages, where they’re establishing Hong Kong’s first dedicated PET and HDPE Recycling Facility. This is a great example of private businesses working to make a change but perhaps this should be the government’s responsibility instead of relying on the private sector. 

ReThink gives businesses a stage to talk about the challenges they’ve faced, how they’ve overcome them and the advice that they have for other stakeholders. 

Collaboration is open to everyone, and we hope that ReThink becomes the event in Hong Kong that enables effective solutions to be implemented and for this dialogue about the opportunities that becoming more sustainable will bring. It’s a shame that it’s taken something like COVID-19 to wake people up, but at least people are waking up.

ReThink will take place on September 2 & 3 at K11 Atelier King’s Road, Hong Kong. Sponsors of the event include HSBC, Cathay Pacific, SAP, CLP, Eaton, Impossible and InvestHK.

ReThink has been designed for professionals who are driven by, or challenged with, sustainability goals for their business or organisation and the event will answer a question that is vitally important for businesses in Hong Kong: how can we help businesses accelerate change towards a more sustainable future?

The event provides a platform for businesses, government and not-for-profit organisations to collaborate with each other to work towards a more sustainable world. Delegates can discuss how to implement actionable practices while meeting providers with deployable technology and real solutions. 

To see the program of the event, click here.

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