All About Green

Water-friendly Culture Reconnecting People and Water

Green Country Vol.132 (Jun 2018)
Author: Green Power
Landscape of the waters around the Victoria Harbour
Improving water quality of Victoria Harbour helps promote water-friendly culture.

The Singapore government launched an Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters Programme (ABC Programme) in 2006. Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is a flagship project under the programme that unites the river function of water supply, flood control and leisure facility. In Taiwan, Lyu Chuan and Liu Chuan in the old central district of Taichung have been restored to become tourist hotspots. South Korea is famous for the drastic removal of the highway that covered the Cheonggyecheon river channel. These successful restoration cases in nearby regions all transformed rivers into attractive places for the public. The water-friendly culture has spread to Hong Kong in recent years.

Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore
Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in Singapore is a popular leisure spot for the public. At the same time, it enhances the city environment and protects local water resources.

Water is essential in our daily life. Yet water-friendly culture is a new term that has only become popular in recent years. What exactly does it mean? In 2017, the Secretary for Development, in response to a written question raised in the Legislative Council, said that the government planned to promote water sports, as the water quality of Victoria Harbour and other local waters was improving, by building water sports facilities and organising water sports activities and contests. Angling activities would also be encouraged in waterfront areas. During work to improve nullahs and river channels, the concept of revitalising water bodies would be incorporated, alongside elements of greening and biodiversity, environmental beautification and water-friendly activities.

A large number of citizens soaked their feet and chatted in the river recreational facilities
Getting in touch with water is an important element of water-friendly culture.
© Kuan Yu-kuen

Hence we can see that the official definition of "water-friendly culture" involves the public getting close to and even getting in touch with water bodies, making use of them for leisure and to enhance the environment and ecology. The term is new but the culture is actually deep-rooted. Water sports and leisure activities have a long history in Hong Kong.

A large number of citizens watched the dragon boat race on the bridge
Dragon boat racing has a long history in Hong Kong.

As early as a century ago, by the seafront at North Point, a swimming shed was set up for the public to take a dip in Victoria Harbour. In 1950, there were about 10 such sheds across Hong Kong. It was only as pollution of the harbour worsened that the swimming sheds were gradually replaced by swimming pools. Dragon boat sports also date back a long time. Every year, Tung Ng Festival is traditionally celebrated with dragon boat races, including one that has become an international event. There are other kinds of water friendly leisure activities including seaside angling, sailing, surfing, diving, and snorkelling. Apart from natural water bodies, artificial ones such as man-made lakes, ponds in the parks and reservoirs also provide scenic spots where people enjoy and may carry out activities like rowing.

A reservoir surrounded by dense mountain forest
Reservoir is a half-natural, halt-artificial water body.

Water quality improvement helps water-friendly culture

Different water activities have different requirements for water quality. In all cases, no one would enjoy polluted water. For environmental enhancement purposes, water bodies with no rubbish and foul smell work well. But for leisure and sports activities, the requirement for water quality is higher as people get in contact with the water bodies. In general, E. coli level is used as the standard. The requirement is most stringent if water bodies are used for ecological purposes, so that wild species can survive.

Water pollution is an issue that all cities around the world face. This is partly solved by advances with pollution treatment technology, and water-friendly culture can be developed today. For example, the annual cross-harbour swim was halted due to pollution of Victoria Harbour at the end of the 1970s. The event was restarted in 2011 as water quality had improved. The event attracts thousands of participants each year. The government has also begun incorporating water-friendly culture in new project works in river restoration and waterfront promenades.

Large scale infrastructure is not the key

From an environmental perspective, developing water-friendly culture can raise public awareness of the importance of water resources. The government will also put more emphasis into water environment and quality and may invest in improving and even restoring damaged ecology. The seaside and river environment will be better preserved, increasing habitat diversity and helping to adjust the micro-climate in the city environment.

Hong Kong is blessed with a rich water environment. Hence there is no need to spend a lot of money and build large-scale facilities to promote water-friendly culture. Surrounded by the sea on three sides, Hong Kong has a diverse marine and coastal environment, from oceanic waters on the east side to the Pearl River estuary on the west, including 263 islands and meandering coastlines, which hosts a range of high value natural habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass beds. The complex landform of Hong Kong with numerous hills and mountains also develops hundreds of rivers and streams of various sizes. In addition, in the early days when water supply was an issue, more than 20 reservoirs and irrigation reservoirs were constructed from the 1860s to the 1970s. These natural and semi-natural water bodies all have unique landscapes and ecology, and can be the educational and recreational places for the public.

Today, as part of the environmental education, we now have small-scale guided tours to gei wai and fish ponds, and bike tours of riverside ecology and history. If more can be done, such as building more bike paths and training more eco-instructors, water-friendly culture can be advanced.

River-crossing ferry at Nam Sang Wai with two bicycles and three villagers
River-crossing ferry at Nam Sang Wai is a form of unique local water culture.

There are quite a few examples of unique water culture in Hong Kong. For example, in Tai O, there is the tradition of a dragon boat water parade, which was also observed in Yuen Long and Tuen Mun. Other examples include the old river-crossing ferries at Tai O and present day Nam Sang Wai, a moat at Kat Hing Wai and Bin Mo Bridge at Kam Tin. These traditions can be explored and developed into local cultural attractions.

Large stepping stones between the rivers of Cheonggyecheon in South Korea
The public can freely cross the channel of Cheonggyecheon in South Korea.
© Kuan Yu-kuen

Safety first

Water activities naturally come with a certain level of risk. Hence safety is important. Cheonggyecheon in South Korea often is quoted as an example where people can freely visit and cross the channel. However, in Hong Kong, rainstorms in the rainy season pose a problem. River works in the past focused on flood control, and so access to channels is restricted. At most, the aesthetic function was considered.

Lower Tung Chung River
The first river park in Hong Kong will be constructed by Tung Chung River.

The new town planning in Tung Chung West will make a change. A river park will be built, which will retain the natural landscape of Tung Chung River and which people can enter. There may be an alarm system set up to alert people when there is a flooding risk. Water-friendly culture can be developed only when safety issues are tackled.

The grey iron railings and banners to prevent and appeal to the public to enter the river
In Hong Kong, river channels are not accessible to the public.

In the term “water-friendly culture”, “culture” is the key word. In the past, the rural life of the people was so attached to the rivers. Walking into river channels was routine. As society developed, people started to move into high rise buildings and become detached from the aquatic environments. Even as the rivers and sea are still nearby, we are no longer associated with them.

To develop water-friendly culture, multi-faceted arts, education, recreational and sports activities can be carried out. But the most important element is to reconnect people and water. When people realise the importance of water in our daily life and do not simply view the water environment as leisure and recreational facility, we will begin to concern ourselves with water resources and conservation, and a truly unique local water-friendly culture will emerge.