After warding off mass tourism, Hong Kong’s last fishing village faces climate threats

Hong Kong (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sitting between his fridge, TV and stacks of bowls, Ng Kei-hung sat outside his family’s home in Hong Kong’s Tai O village as he waited for his furniture to dry after a recent flood.

A view of Tai O village in Hong Kong, China September 18, 2018. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/ Beh Lih Yi

With stilt houses lining the river that runs through the village, Tai O is a world away from the skyscrapers of downtown Hong Kong, and is popular among locals and tourists looking to escape the concrete jungle.

Scientists say it is also the unlikely front line in Hong Kong’s battle against climate change, with global warming and rising sea levels leading to increasingly powerful storms and more frequent flooding.

“We have never seen so much flooding here in the village,” said Ng, 74, sitting expressionless and shirtless outside his stilt house, just days after Super Typhoon Mangkhut hit in September.

It was just the latest serious flood to hit the village in recent years. In August 2017, another typhoon caused waist-deep flooding and extensive damage in Tai O.

“What else can we do? We’re not leaving,” the pensioner said.

The Asian financial hub is largely able to withstand typhoons, which occur regularly in southern China.

Yet September’s super typhoon caused unprecedented flooding and damage across the city, knocking down trees, smashing windows on commercial towers and crippling transportation networks.

Environmentalists say coastal cities like Hong Kong, with its many low-lying areas, are vulnerable to climate change – but there is often complacency about preparations for extreme weather.

‘SPONGE CITIES’ MODEL

Located about two hours from downtown Hong Kong, rural Tai O is the last remaining fishing village in the territory and is home to more than 2,000 people.

Fishing, the region’s traditional industry, is dying out after the government imposed a trawling ban in 2012 for environmental reasons, but many still rely on the production of salt, shrimp paste and fish. other seafood products to earn a living.

An influx of tourists in recent years to see the picturesque village dubbed the “Venice of Hong Kong” has prompted the government to come up with a plan to improve access by extending a cable car connection and building recreational facilities nearby.

These efforts were met with opposition from residents. They have largely resisted attempts to over-develop the village, saying it would change their traditional way of life which gives a taste of Hong Kong’s past.

Resisting the floods of tourists is one thing. Scientists are now warning that climate change poses a greater threat to Tai O – and have said extreme weather could within decades make the village uninhabitable.

“If global warming, melting Arctic sea ice and sea level rise continue at a faster pace, flooding in low-lying coastal areas would increase much more and faster than expected,” the agency said. atmospheric expert Johnny Chan, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

“It is possible that in places like Tai O, if sea levels continue to rise and we have more of these typhoons, it will become uninhabitable in the future.”

“Hongkongers are very happy with these types of disasters…but it’s really something people need to start thinking about,” he said.

The city government said it has taken steps to mitigate the risk of flooding.

Last year, it completed work on a huge stormwater storage tank under the city’s famous horse racing track near central Hong Kong, which can hold as much water as 24 swimming pools.

The reservoir acts like a huge sponge, soaking up rainwater during storms and releasing it later to clean toilets and streets, as well as for irrigation in parks and playgrounds.

“Hong Kong is in the common path of tropical cyclones and experiences very heavy torrential rain at times,” Simon Lai, senior engineer with the Hong Kong Drainage Services Department, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We do a lot of public education to tell the public that if we don’t do anything about climate change, we will face severe flooding.”

RIVER WALL, EARLY WARNING

Tai O has a flood early warning system in place, and several years ago the government built a 220-metre-long (722 ft) dyke along the river to prevent flooding.

But that still isn’t stopping water flowing into homes along the waterway, prompting activists to call on city authorities to do more.

Eddie Tse of the Tai O Sustainable Development Education Workshop, a nonprofit, said Hong Kong should look to cities like Amsterdam to bolster its flood defences.

“Tai O is like a living museum, showcasing our unique heritage like the fishing village and the stilt houses,” Tse said.

“Most people here don’t want to move and we would kill the whole culture here if we did,” he added.

Resident Wong Ah-siu, who is 85, echoed that sentiment.

Wong, who lives with her daughter and her husband, was evacuated to a shelter just before the typhoon hit, but it still caused her family around 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($1,275) in damage.

Despite Tai O’s uncertain future, she has sworn to stay.

“We’ve lived here all our lives – where can I go?”

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