2002年11月21日 星期四

It is not too late to save our countryside from concrete

(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2002-11-21 )

With many debating whether the latest government measures will work to prop up property prices, it is strange that a quiet push by the government to release a not-insignificant area of land for development has gone unnoticed. Without judging the merits of the government's stated objective on property prices, this move will arguably have an effect opposite to what the government says it wants.

Thanks to an inquiry by the Worldwide Fund for Nature ( Hong Kong ), the Planning Department revealed in July that it had completed an internal review last year recommending that development rights, up to a plot ratio of 0.4, be granted to about 1,400 hectares of land classified as agricultural or designated for recreational use.

Before the review was even made known to the public, the department started implementing its recommendations by gazetting on June 28 the rezoning of a site in Tai Tong to a new category called Other Specific Use (Rural Use). The rezoning grants the owner a previously non-existent development right on a piece of agricultural land.

The most damaging effect of this little known and little debated policy will manifest itself not in property prices but in the long-term future of the New Territories ' rural landscape. If the policy is carried out to the full, Hong Kong people may see the rural character of the New Territories disappeared in a decade or two, whether or not there is a need for such development.

While nobody, including green groups, objects to well-considered development that caters for economic and social needs, a wholesale push for developing agricultural land is another matter.

The government justifies the policy on the grounds that a lot of agricultural land has become degraded over the years through neglect or the violation of zoning conditions. The best solution, the review proposes, is to reward the low-grade land's hopefully conscientious owners with development rights so that these sites can retain some undefined rural character.

It is not hard to see that the policy creates a new polluter-gains principle. While it is encouraging to find that the government has such strong faith in human integrity, especially the integrity of the landed class, it is unclear whether this new principle will enhance Hong Kong 's claim to be a ''world city''.

For those Hongkongers who live in the real world, it is safe to predict that once this new principle is adopted, more, if not all, agricultural land will become low-grade - whether by accident or by design. When that day comes, the rural character of the New Territories , together with the many sites of conservation and heritage value now in private hands, will be gone forever.

Is this what Hong Kong really wants?

It is surprising that the public has not been consulted. The Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, pledged his allegiance to the principle of sustainable development as early as 1999 in his policy address.

Paragraph 119 of the Implementation Plan adopted at the recent World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg calls on governments to ensure access to environmental information and judicial and administrative proceedings in environmental matters, as well as public participation in decision-making.

The lack of public participation in this review casts doubt on the government's commitment to good public governance.

It is particularly unfortunate that the government's push for the implementation of the review's recommendations comes ahead of the completion of three important reviews being conducted on conservation policy, population policy and the small-house policy - that unsustainable policy of giving descendants of indigenous villagers entitlements to development land in perpetuity.

Each of these reviews may render the recommendations of the rural land use review inappropriate, or unnecessary. Is the government deliberately trying to pre-empt their findings, or is it a lack of co-ordination? Either way, the public deserves an explanation.

Ironically, the same names come up on both sides of the ultimate equation: who gains and who loses in the rural land review. Beneficiaries include land owners and developers who will enjoy a rise in the value of their agricultural land; and the government, whose coffers will be boosted by land conversion premiums over the years to come. Losers, in addition to the public, include developers, who will face further falls in property prices because of greater land supply, and the government, whose latest housing policy and commitment to sustainable development will lose credibility.

Beyond the policy confusion lies one big question: what do we Hong Kongers want the New Territories to be like? Do we want to maintain their rural character? Do we want them rezoned for development, even if there is no need for housing - as at present - or there is a better way to accommodate new housing needs, such as well-planned new towns? Do we want to enhance both the conservation and socio-economic value of the land with innovative measures and strive to become a model city of sustainable development?

Instead of taking a negative approach, 11 environmental groups have joined forces in a position paper to the government outlining a constructive framework for strategic planning, sustainable development and conservation in the New Territories . We all reckon a solution needs to be found, but it will not be found among misguided principles, a lack of transparency and a lack of political will.

With a concerted effort, Hong Kong can still become a model of sustainable development. It is not too late for the Planning Department to withdraw the review and start afresh. What we need is to encourage innovation and foster partnership and trust to tackle entrenched, difficult issues.

Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Conservancy Association.




2002年9月13日 星期五

Earth Summit calls for action, not just rhetoric

(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2002-9-13)

People, planet and prosperity were the catchwords of the World Summit on Sustainable Development which concluded in Johannesburg last week. In a nutshell, these words captured the three dimensions of sustainable development - an integration of social equity, environmental quality and economic growth for the benefit of this and future generations.

South Africa President Thabo Mbeki said in his opening address the summit was expected to adopt a practical programme to translate the dream of sustainable development into reality. Yet high expectations at the start of the summit turned into deep disappointment in the end. The 104 attending heads of state could not come to an agreement on firm targets to realise the principles set out at the 1992 Rio summit, to eliminate perverse subsidies in energy and agriculture, or to address man-made climate change.

Many are now questioning whether the results from Johannesburg represent Rio plus 10, or Rio minus 20 in regressing to the state of affairs when the One Earth conference was held in Stockholm in 1972.

While some criticisms are justified, some significant successes at the summit went barely noticed.

Public expectations of government were perhaps misplaced from the very beginning. The inter-governmental agreements tabled for negotiation at the summit were never intended to be legally binding. They merely serve as moral commitments to which the public, if properly organised, can hold governments accountable. Hence the focus should always have been on how much the Earth Summit could be used to empower civil society, galvanise public will and mobilise public action to defend the cause of sustainable development.

Events at the summit were held in six major venues, only one of which was the Sandton Convention Centre where official negotiations took place. Much more was happening outside Sandton. There was the Nasrec centre, where hundreds of non-governmental organisations put on non-stop forums and exhibits, and the Ubuntu Village, where governments and non-governmental agencies showcased success stories of sustainable development.

At a World Conservation Union centre, participants engaged in parallel debates on conservation and development. At the WaterDome, industry players, aid agencies and NGOs exchanged experiences in water and sanitation work. There were several other venues for business councils, parliamentarians and local governments to discuss the way forward.

Despite the logistical nightmare of having to rush from one venue to another, the set-up in Johannesburg was testimony to one of its achievements, that of widening the issues of concern - from pollution, conservation and energy to poverty, equity, health and economic growth. We also succeeded in engaging a broader spectrum of stakeholders - from governments, local authorities, business and aid agencies to environment, social welfare and community groups. Only on this basis will opportunities emerge to integrate the diverse issues and to form broad partnerships for action.

The summit witnessed a gain in strength of the non-governmental movement. International NGOs are now highly organised and deeply entrenched in the United Nations process. A joint statement by Greenpeace and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development calling for government action received widespread attention.

Anti-poverty groups such as Oxfam not only lobbied for their own cause, but also provided background research and analytical support to many developing-country governments in their round-the-clock negotiations during the summit.

WaterAid, an NGO, earned respect for its role in successfully lobbying for the target of halving the number of people who lack sanitation worldwide by 2015. It was one of the few concrete goals adopted at the summit.

All of these demonstrate that while governments may lack political will to change, civil society is taking the lead. It is no coincidence that what is happening at the international level is mirrored by what is developing in Hong Kong, albeit at a slower pace.

There is a long history in Hong Kong of civil society filling the leadership vacuum. For instance, the birth of two of the most important institutions safeguarding our environment today - the Environmental Protection Department and the Country Parks Scheme - can be traced back to the persistent calls by environmental groups nearly 30 years ago.

Three decades ago, only one person from the Conservancy Association represented Hong Kong in the Stockholm conference.

Government seats were empty.

This year Hong Kong sent a 37-member NGO delegation. They included representatives from green groups, social service organisations and aid agencies, politicians, businessmen, academics and students. The SAR government also sent a delegation of eight officials.

Despite the failures at the inter-governmental level, the summit process will not be a loss if civil society can embark on a new path - a path of renewed confidence and a path of partnership initiatives. Many of the solutions to our problems may be unglamourous local measures, and may even be surprisingly easy to find.

In Johannesburg, delegates were able to visit a nearby nature reserve called Rietvlei. The site was an abandoned 4,000-hectare farm before the Pretoria municipal authorities acquired it for water conservation. The area is now transformed into a wetland, serving as a natural filter for some lightly treated sewage discharged upstream. Its ecological and economic functions are enhanced by re-introducing animals, including zebras, springboks, wildebeest and cheetahs into the reserve to attract tourists.

The tourist income is not only used to maintain the reserve, but to also fund further wetland projects. Local communities are awarded small contracts in the programme. Training is provided to unemployed youth, and it is mandatory for the operating contractors to employ 60 per cent of women and two per cent of disabled.

Rietvlei is an excellent example of a local, integrated solution. Local innovation, multi-stakeholder dialogue and an open mind are what we need to create small successes. In response to the global themes of people, planet and prosperity, perhaps what we need here are integration, partnership and action.

Now that Premier Zhu Rongji has ratified the Kyoto Protocol and fully embraced Agenda 21, a blueprint for sustainable development, it is Hong Kong's turn to set itself up as a role model of sustainable development in Asia. Used wisely, a ''local'' Agenda 21 and other lessons from Johannesburg may give Hong Kong a new vision, or even tools for economic revival.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela described how he spent 27 years in jail in his fight for a free and democratic South Africa. He wrote: ''Rhetoric is not important. Actions are.'' Thirty years have passed since the Stockholm Conference. Our legacy to our children will depend on whether more companions will join the long walk to sustainability.

Albert Lai Kwong-tak is the chairman of the Conservancy Association and led the Hong Kong NGO delegation to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg.


2002年3月6日 星期三

The first step is a new mindset

(Originally published in South China Morning Post, 2002-3-6, A17 )

When the Conservancy Association was established 35 years ago, one of its early missions was to remove the serious trade waste from tanneries polluting the River Indus in the northern New Territories. After years of campaigning by the community, the government simply moved the tanneries to an industrial zone in Kwai Chung.

Three decades on, world leaders and civic organisations alike have affirmed that environmental problems should not be dealt with in isolation. They advocate an integrated approach, taking into account broader socio-economic needs and the well-being of future generations.

The tanneries are now long gone, but if they still existed today, the problem would no longer be about waste-water treatment, but rather management of water and land resources. Questions would include how factories can use water wisely, whether the economic gains of the tanneries could compensate for the diminution in ecological value of the land and river, and how the local communities could benefit from better land use.

Hong Kong's institutional framework for dealing with ecology remains largely unchanged. By and large, the problems and the philosophies used in tackling them have changed, but the problem-solvers have not.

The new perspective can be usefully applied to all environmental resources - water, air, solid waste, energy, land, biodiversity and other natural and cultural heritage. The number of government departments involved in these areas is mind-boggling: Environmental Protection, Water Supplies, Drainage Services, Electrical and Mechanical Services, Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation, Planning, Lands and more.

The separation of functions among numerous departments often leads to confused lines of responsibility. For major projects such as the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, so many departments were involved during the decade-long process of study, planning, construction and operation that, in the end, no single government unit took responsibility for the entire scheme. Officials can often seek refuge in the bureaucratic maze when criticised. Consultants and contractors may easily take advantage of the confusion when substandard work is delivered.

A consequence of this bureaucratic overkill is inefficiency. Due to the separation of planning, implementation and execution, investment decisions and operational controls are often wasteful. This problem is evident in the management of the water cycle - artificially segregated into potable water supply, sewage treatment and drainage. Integrated water resource management, an internationally accepted approach, is simply not practicable under the current structure.

Given the many billions of dollars spent by these departments collectively every year, cost savings from potential gains in efficiency can be substantial.

The third problem is role conflict. The different roles of an executing agency that plans and implements a project and a regulator that specifies performance requirements and monitors implementation are often merged in one department. For example, the Environmental Protection Department, after many years of expansion, now plays multiple roles in regulation, planning and execution. The department will need exceptional courage to prosecute contractors under its own guidance and supervision when such contractors breach statutory requirements.

Resource conservation is another casualty. Except for a partial portfolio under the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, no agency is given a clear mandate for the management of water, waste and energy. Conservation efforts are often an after-thought in policy formulation. Lack of co-ordination among departments makes matters worse. Since the Planning Department and Lands Department come under another bureau separate from the Environment, Transport and Works Bureau - which has the responsibility for nature conservation policy - any sensible conservation effort that involves changes in planning and lands policy faces an insurmountable obstacle.

One of the basic principles of sustainable development concerns public access to information and participation in policymaking. Unfortunately, the current institutional system has not allowed for the level of transparency, public accountability and consensus-building necessary for sustainable development.

A high level of scepticism towards environmental policymaking is also doing a disservice to the government: it finds it hard to convince the public of the merits of some worthy causes, such as the removal of perverse subsidies, the application of polluter-pays principle or the adoption of desirable trade-offs for nature conservation.

There is one obvious answer to all these problems: a major institutional reform in the environment and resource management portfolio.

The reform should be structured on the basis of three pillars: eco-efficiency in resource management, efficient delivery and more public participation. In future articles, the Conservancy Association will argue for the establishment of three separate authorities - covering water, waste and conservation - in addition to a reformed Environmental Protection Department that can act as an independent regulator.

Albert Lai Kwong-tak is chairman of the Conservancy Association.