Hong Kong Should Be Ashamed

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HILARY ROXE Hong KongChina's relatively primitive environmental awareness is understandable: as 1.2 billion people rush headlong toward prosperity, ecological concerns can seem a luxury. But what excuse is there in Hong Kong, the territory on the tip of the mainland that's home to a mere 6.8 million, comparatively wealthy people?Hong Kong began to grow up, in stormy, adolescent spurts, in the middle of this century. Flooded by refugees from the mainland at the end of World War II, the British colony responded with one of the world's most ambitious efforts at rapid urbanization. To handle the huge waves of humanity--the population bulged by 1.3 million people between 1945 and 1949 alone--buildings and industries, roads and rail lines erupted from the rocky landscape. Subsequent influxes in the 1960s and a shift from farming to industry added to the strain. Today, residents in the territory are plagued by filthy air and foul water.

How did things get so nasty? Blame a distant colonial government, war-weary immigrants and businesses vying to establish an Asian foothold with few incentives to protect a city that had just started to thrive.

The legacy is appalling, and increasingly visible. Seventy percent of local sewage is dumped, virtually untreated, into Victoria Harbour. Red tide algae hit the territory's shores repeatedly last year, contaminating sea populations and leaving thousands of dead fish on the beaches. Photochemical smog now routinely drapes the hills of the once Barren Rock. More than 18,000 taxis traverse the city exhaling black clouds of diesel smoke. Since 1991, the number of days a year when visibility is less than 8 km has doubled, a phenomenon that now occurs 10% of the time. If we carry on as we have in the past, says Kim Salkeld, deputy secretary for the environment in the Planning, Environment and Lands Bureau, everyone will be choking on the pollution.

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The first rumblings of a green movement are starting to be heard. There is more talk, at least, of recycling and waste reduction, and Hong Kong now plans to convert diesel taxis to cleaner-burning liquefied petroleum gas. We're now aware of the word 'environment,' says Christine Loh, an outspoken local legislator. But we're a long way from understanding the things impacting it.

What's missing, activists say, is inspired leadership. Green groups complain of governmental foot-dragging and lament the absence of a pro-environment visionary among the territory's elite. Indeed, sustainable seems to be more a catch phrase than a policy. Waste-disposal sites originally touted to last 40 years may now be full within two decades, according to official estimates. In other countries, the government would probably lend more assistance, says Lisa Lam, director of Hong Kong's Center for Environmental Technology. But Hong Kong has a non-intervention policy.

What might change things, appropriately enough, is a push from business. If investors decide that the city's health and aesthetic downside is too great, they can pull out. Hong Kong is not an isolated economy, says Bill Barron of the University of Hong Kong's center of urban planning and environmental management. International companies demand certain standards. That's a trend Hong Kong will have to face.

The destruction of Hong Kong's environment is already costing billions in hospitalizations, health care for respiratory illnesses and the resulting productivity decline--not to mention nearly 2,000 pollution-related deaths a year. In a city known for its financial acumen, the balance isn't hard to work out.

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