Whilst most agree that the SARS outbreak is a wake-up call to our long-ignored environmental hygiene problems, it will be an opportunity lost if we stop just at what the Chief Secretary’s Team Clean sets out to do. This opportunity was earned through the pains and tears of the loss of close to 300 lives and billions of dollars of GDP foregone. Each of us has a duty for some serious soul-searching - the more so for those who control public resources.
Beyond the medical lessons yet to be learnt there are at least four levels of social issues that warrant close scrutiny as a result of the SARS outbreak.
The first concerns environmental hygiene which is being tackled by the government through a concerted effort coordinated by Mr Donald Tsang’s Team Clean. Few would dispute the objectives of the campaign but many are worried about whether the announced measures, mostly relying on stringent enforcement, would have long-lasting effects. The prospect is unclear but the Team has at least identified some critical success factors in its interim report: full involvement of the community and the need for novel approaches to develop a sustainable system.
The second level relates to issues of urban management. This covers not only the management of streets and open urban spaces in public hands, but also the management of buildings and “private alleys” often neglected due to ambiguous ownership rights. In particular two of the most important government functions in urban management, the handling of solid waste and the treatment of sewage, have long been identified by environmental groups as areas in need of urgent reform.
The current institutional set-up, involving multiple departments and fragmented responsibilities, not only breeds inefficiency, but also leads to increased health risks to the public because of reduced quality of service. The quality of urban management is clearly more than a health issue; it is about quality-of-life for Hongkongers.
The third level concerns the quality of urban infrastructure – a product of town planning, architecture, engineering, building standards, land allocation and development mechanisms. This is the hardware within which we live, work and relax. The SARS outbreak brought out many fundamental questions.
Why should we suffer from perhaps the most cramped living conditions among developed cities when there are over 20,000 unused public housing units, stretches of empty industrial buildings, widespread abuse of agricultural land and dozens of idle, unsold development sites? Are the building standards prescribed by the government, such as those adopted in Amoy Gardens, really designed for the benefit of administrators, developers or the ultimate buyers and users?
In short, are we getting good value-for-money from this city-home as we pay hard-earned dollars through tax, rental, mortgage and steep house prices?
It would be tempting but wrong to answer this in pure economic terms. A safe home, a friendly neighbourhood, an open breathing space and a green environment not too far from home are some of our most humble wishes if Hong Kong is ever worth its reputation as “Asia’s World City ”. Have the funds we collectively plough into the system been put into good use by the government, developers, bankers and professionals to achieve such modest goals? Are we short-changed by those who handle our resources in all these years?
The fourth level concerns our lifestyles. Are our lifestyles in harmony with nature and with nature’s assimilative capacities? These seemingly remote questions now come back to haunt us as we suddenly realise, for instance, that the habit of eating wildlife animals can be a suicidal act; that our insistence on live poultry markets is an effective way of increasing health risks; that our reluctance to pay for environmental costs embedded in meat prices ultimately adds to our bodily chemical intake as we rely more and more on the so-called modern livestock farming methods that encourage liberal use of chemicals.
If the lifestyles we choose contravene the principles of sustainable production and consumption, who are we to blame?
The Council for Sustainable Development recently proposed this much for Hong Kong: “Our vision is for Hong Kong to be a healthy, economically vibrant and just society that respects the natural environment and values its cultural heritage. By engaging the community in the process of building a strategy for sustainable development, we aim to ensure that Hong Kong will be a city for all to share and enjoy, for this and for future generations.”
The above vision points to one critical success factor in building a sustainable society: engagement of the community in a genuine participatory process. This is also where Team Clean’s mission looks most vulnerable.
Though recognising the importance of public participation, the measures adopted by Team Clean is entirely led by the administration - the public is encouraged to participate as passive actors. There is no mechanism to empower the community to make their own decisions with dedicated resources. At the district level all decisions on implementation are to be made by District Management Committees – a government organ, with the public allowed to only watch and shout on the sidelines.
One of the principles enshrined in the Rio Declaration, a United Nations document signed by governments in the 1992 Earth Summit, stipulates that environmental decisions are best made at the lowest level possible where community members share a common interest in the outcome of the decisions.
In Hong Kong ’s case a genuine public participation process cannot succeed without corresponding institutional reforms within the government. The archaic structure in many portfolios has become an obstacle to any improvement in operational efficiency and eco-efficiency. Team Clean’s apparent lack of mandate to carry out institutional reforms within the government is a major threat to the sustainability of its short-term achievements.
The multiple issues arising from the SARS outbreak made this much clear: a clean city cannot solve our problems; only a sustainable city can.
Chairman, The Conservancy Association
15 June 2003