Already grown six-fold throughout the 20th century, global water demand is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050. In conjunction, global water supply faces increasing strain as worldwide per capita water resources more than halved from 1962 to 2014, and are forecast to slump to a third of 1962 levels by 2025. With the daily per capita domestic water consumption of many major international cities exceeding the world average of 110 liters (see figure below), water security has gained greater priority on many governments’ agendas, particularly in large cities with dense populations that face pressure from urban growth and impact of climate change. Cities and property owners need to anticipate and be prepared for oncoming water challenges when they invest in buildings and infrastructure.
International Best Practices
As outlined in a recent study by Civic Exchange, one of the world’s top 50 environmental think tanks, many cities have already applied policy tools to improve data collection, repair and enhance infrastructure, as well as promoting conservation as components of water demand management.
Smart Meter Installation
Smart meters are used in cities like London and New York as technical measures to close data gaps and ensure more efficient water conservation.
- Their water strategy (2011), aimed to meter all houses and blocks of flats by 2020 and all individual flats by 2025, has prompted regulators to require water utilities to install property/boundary-level smart meters and to provide free leak detection and repair services for first-time issues.
- The government recommends a mandate that requires companies to implement compulsory water metering in water-stressed zones by 2030, along with amendments to relevant regulation by the end of 2019. Outside of these locations, smart meters can be introduced when the property’s occupier changes or when customers request metering.
- The City rolled out automatic metering systems on water use. Immediately, the frequency of meter readings changed from four times a year to at least four times a day – and in many places, hourly.
- Property owners with smart meters monitoring their water pipes are eligible for a high-efficiency toilet voucher program. The initiative offers eligible property owners a US$125 voucher that can be redeemed at participating vendors to purchase a high-efficiency toilet that uses 6.05 liters per flush. This encourages broader participation in collecting water usage data by incentivizing customer uptake and water conservation efforts.
Improving overall sustainability of building function, reducing unnecessary waste
In addition to installing smart meters to close data gaps, some cities have taken measures on data disclosure, incentivizing or even mandating building owners to regularly report standardized water performance and efficiency figures so that these can be tracked against overall city targets.
- The City’s Greener Greater Buildings Plan requires owners of large buildings (over 50,000 ft2 for private structures and over 10,000 ft2 for public ones) to annually measure and report their energy and water consumption for public disclosure, analysis and mapping.
- These owners have accounts that digitally and automatically report data for energy measurement, as well as to a tracking tool (Energy Star Portfolio Manager) for monitoring water usage patterns over time. Property owners must make annual compliance updates to ensure that data is uploaded correctly to avoid a penalty of US$500.
- Sydney incorporates mandatory water submetering into building codes, regulating both water usage and the installation of more accurate measurement tools.
- Since 2004, the regional government requires all new residential buildings to commit to mandatory water, energy and greenhouse gas reductions.
- Sydney also makes detailed water demand profiles for different building types (varying by industry) publicly available in order to facilitate its goal of retrofitting old structures to improve water efficiency (i.e. reduce total water consumption by 20% at the end of 2030, compared to 2006 levels).
The impact of data transparency should not be underestimated. The requirements for buildings to disclose potable and non-potable water usage statistics could potentially increase demand for buildings that are more water efficient and resilient to drought through reduced reliance on mains water. This would allow buyers and tenants to compare the relative performance of different buildings.
What can Hong Kong do?
Cities facing increasingly prevalent issues of water scarcity can learn from the wide array of best practice examples of their international peers, and adopt a more holistic and strategic approach to water management.
For example, here in Hong Kong, we can target unmetered properties – instead of installing traditional meters, property owners can move straight to adopting smart meter technology to better monitor the water usage of individual units. The city could also set targets for smart meter installation at different types of buildings.
In addition to making all leak detection and repair services free like London, the Hong Kong government could further incentivize general repairs and awareness by granting attractive discount for first-time issues or making their costs redeemable. As with New York, property owners should also be able to receive vouchers with an attractive discount for implementing upgrades that improve water conservation.
Similar to Sydney, Hong Kong could integrate goals for reducing water consumption into its mandatory building codes for new construction. Units, estates or structures that achieve those water efficiency standards could be marketed as such to the public, providing an incentive for stronger performance for both developers and customers. More than that, meeting specific water efficiency standards can be a benchmark for buildings’ sustainability ranking. When years of water usage data is consistently made available to the public, building developers and operators will become increasingly aware that resource efficiency is not simply an additional bonus, but a core asset that boosts competitiveness.
Globally, governments have been dealing with similar fundamental issues in water management for many years. In 2014, C40 Cities published an urban water blueprint for mapping conservation solutions. For the nearly 30 member cities with significant power over water assets and policy, their top priorities and actions included reducing water leaks, promoting more extensive adoption of water-efficient appliances and using incentives to introduce water efficiency measures. The importance of this global cohort should not be underplayed and the property sector, one that has a significant contribution to global water consumption, should join hands with governments in handling this multi-faceted challenge.