(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.