Here in one of the world's largerst and most crowded cities, they've cut off the water for 14 hours a day and the teahouse and laundry owners are up in arms.
The drought in Hong Kong like the current water crisis in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, has brought the usual public appeals for voluntary conservation. But this British colony of more than four million Chinese is not a democracy, and the authorities have made sure that nobody cheats. After consulting no one but themselves, they simply turned off the taps.
Wealthy, energetic Hong Kong prides itself on prospering at the edge of extinction, with the threat of a Communist Chinese takeover always looming. So it is trying to take this latest critics in stride.
Unfortunately, unlike Washington. Hong Kong does not have a huge federal employer relatively immune to blood, pestilence and drought. And if the water shortage here lasts much longer, the textile and plastics industries that keep the city alive may suffer serious losses.
Right now, with water cutofs from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in all but a few select industrial areas, it is the thousands of laundries and tea houses that are complaining the loudest. "Our operations are severely disrupted right in the midst of our noon rush hour," said one tea house proprietor.
Officials here say that this is the worst drought in 14 years for a January-to-June period and that it comes after the driest November-to-April in 128 years.
In the midst of this crisis, Hong Kong's firmest is the same People's Republic of China that threatens its future. China has its own serious water problems, but Peking does not want to kill off a bourgeois city that has become such a good customer for Communist goods. So it supplies a substantial portion of the 240 million gallons Hong Kong needs each day.
A recent official radio broadcast in the neighboring Chinese province of Kwangtung asked, in effect, that all comrades cut down their own water use so that among other things, a steady flow to the capitalist bars and bathtubs of Hong Kong could continue.
While many of the four million Chinese here worry about the loss of their livehood, the 40,000 to 50,000 Anerican and European residents and tourists make out all right. The waiters at the Foreign Correspondents Club have stopped filling the water glasses on the dining tables, but most members prefer other forms of liquid refreshment anyway. Guests at the Hong Kong Hotel have had to to sun themselves beside a boarded-up swimming pool, but as one said. "We are willing to help the people of Hong Kong save water because we experienced similar drought conditions in Britain last year."
Everyone is supposed to look out for him self in this last bastion of laissez-faire capitalism. This means hoarding. Some building inspectors are beginning to look around for what they fear is a severe strain on apartment floors caused by storage of large barrels of water.
The island of Hong Kong and the adjoining Kowloon peninsula, which make up the colony are little more than pieces of a coastal mountain range. Rain water from the summer monsoon is usually plentiful, but it quickly runs down the hillsides and no one has bothered to devise many ways to stop and store it.
The city has had two or three heavr rainstorms in the last two weeks, but the radio and newspaper have reported after each that the water just didn't happen to fall in the area of the colony's few catchment basins. The city's reservoirs are said to be at only 44 per cent capicity, but those near major residential areas look even drier than that.
One of the television ads produced by the government to encourage water conservation shows a young couple smiling at each other while caught in a downpour, then looking unhappy again when voiceover warms that a few rain showers won't solve the problem.
The government is reportedly offering top salaries to Japanese technicians needed to insure a speedy opening of a desalinization plant that could provide up to 16 per cent of the colony's water.By September, when the station is scheduled to open, the water situation might be desperate.
But if the letters-to-the-editor in the local newspapers are a reliable barometer, no one is really thinking much about that right now. This week, as the taps ran dry and unused pipes became rusty, the readers of the South China Morning Post were absorbed in a debate over whether there is an "n" sound in the Cantonese language and whether bare breast should be displayed on local television.