Letters to Engineers : 6 of 12
22 June 2008
Dear Fellow Engineers,
I attended a briefing on the latest report of air pollution in the Pearl River Delta region last week. A professor from the Faculty of Medicine of the Hong Kong University lamented, “Although this research clearly shows that there are at least 10,000 premature deaths from air pollution in the Pearl River Delta which covers Hong Kong and Macau , I do not anticipate the SAR Government to make any policy improvements in this area. Just like bird flu, which has already broken out for five times and caused huge damages, the government still hesitates on the central slaughtering system.”
So, what exactly is Hong Kong suffering from?
In any civilised society, the loss of human life and the spread of health risks are the most crucial factors that will motivate a government to act boldly and resolutely to forge policy changes. The first widespread outbreak of the avian flu was already eleven years back. However, it was not until recently that the highest echelons of the Government began to show a greater sense of determination to do something.
So, what exactly are our policymakers suffering from?
The SAR Government has all the way been suffering from a ‘Policy-making Paralysis Syndrome’ (‘PPS’). Because of such a syndrome, all citizens of Hong Kong are victimised. Hong Kong engineers, in particular, have seen the drifting away of myriads of opportunities that could have bettered our city’s development in numerous aspects. Examples are so obvious to pick:
- To make fundamental improvements on Hong Kong ’s air quality, the Council for Sustainable Development recommended a comprehensive package two years ago, consisting of nearly 40 action items worth more than $50 billion of investments. Most of these proposed actions, however, have not even been discussed;
- The Central Slaughtering House has been earmarked as a project worthy of $220 million. Eleven years have passed since the first outbreak of the bird flu but there is still no decision to go ahead;
- For power plants to reduce emissions, clean energy is required. Yet the government remains undecided about the options for a $10 billion natural gas receiving terminal, not to mention the launch of any research studies on how to popularise the use of natural gas in our city. On the contrary, the public transport authorities in Beijing have already invested RMB 4 billion to upgrade their fleet and infrastructure. Five thousand new coaches running on natural gas are expected to be seen on the roads of Beijing this year;
- In 2003, I was entrusted by the Council for Sustainable Development to convene a specialists support group with a view to promoting public participation and recommending sustainable strategies in solid waste management. The construction of bulk treatment facilities such as incinerators is part and parcel of the recommended strategy. Unfortunately the Government is yet to decide on whether the investment of $4 billion in incinerator will go ahead;
- Although as early as 2000, the International Expert Panel appointed by the Government recommended that biological treatment (Stage 2B) of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme is both necessary and desirable, the top officials still refuse to set a definite timetable for this $10.8 billion project;
- To relieve traffic congestions on the northern part of the Hong Kong Island , the electronic road pricing system has been put to earnest investigation time and again in the past twenty years. Even the Transport Expert Panel appointed by the Harbourfront Enhancement Committee agreed that the Central-Wanchai Bypass could not be a replacement of the electronic road pricing system. Nonetheless, the Government has still not made up its mind.
The endless delay of these projects alone has already led to the loss of engineering contracts worth over $70 billion. If creativity were ever applied to policymaking, these projects could have earned loud public applauses for the Government, and demonstrated to Hongkongers that the Government really cares what they care. Instead, the indecision and delay on the part of the Government have continued to heighten the immeasurable risks in environmental quality and public health. Therefore, if Hong Kong ’s engineers do not stand together to help heal this PPS at the Government’s top level, the loss to the profession is both gigantic and endless. Not only every engineer becomes a victim; everybody in Hong Kong becomes a victim.
It is the self-preservation mentality of the Government’s top policymakers that has led to all these. The present situation is also caused by these officials’ lack of international perspective, their inability to grasp key technical know-how, their kow-towing to vested interests, or their failure to keep pace with changing public aspirations. If engineers can articulate their views using good science, and voice them out with professional integrity and independence, they will gain significant moral strength to become true ‘enablers’ of public opinion - providing smart solutions and becoming true partners of the Government by enhancing the latter’s resolve in policy-making.
Some may say in private that “engineers should better mind their own jobs and keep their mouths shut.” But I think all of us can understand that any engineer who truly cares for his or her own job will not step back in the face of vested interest and let the profession’s new development opportunities be trampled under its feet. Speaking the truth in front of the power and the rich is the best way to reinstate the professional pride of all engineers to where it should be. It is in the best interest of all engineers and Hongkongers to walk tall and thereby revive all those frozen but badly needed engineering projects.
Ir Albert Lai
Asahi Environment Centre, Kawaguchi City, Saitama Prefecture, Japan
(Photo Courtesy of Peter Li)
Incinerator in Beitou District, Taipei
(Photo Courtesy of Peter Li)