Does Hong Kong's container port have a future? The short answer is, it needs a total clean-up first. In the past, Hong Kong held the top position in terms of throughput because it was the trans-shipment hub to the mainland and elsewhere in Asia. Hong Kong was ahead of the curve in starting to build container-handling infrastructure in the 1970s. It is now in fourth position.
In light of space constraints, operators spilled into Shenzhen, where the annual throughput now exceeds Hong Kong's. The two ports can be regarded as 'twins' since terminal ownership and management are similar. In terms of tonnage, Shenzhen is third in the world, but adding the two together makes this region the world's super-container hub.
Today, Shanghai has the most throughput, with Singapore second. Shanghai's meteoric rise has much to do with the rise of its hinterland as a manufacturing hub, as has been the case for Hong Kong and Shenzhen serving the Pearl River Delta.
Ports will have to cope with ever larger and deeper container vessels. Most symbolic is Shanghai's Yangshan deepwater port, built on a group of islands beyond the city's historical port limits, which opened in late 2005.
Singapore is also considering a relocation of the port as it builds the next generation of terminal facilities. It is currently next to the business district. If it relocates, it would free up potentially high-value land for commercial and recreational development.
Hong Kong's problem is that it has run out of environmental capacity, to deal with heavy shipping emissions, as well as physical space. From an urban planning and public health perspective, container shipping extracts a heavy toll on residents. Poor planning for back-up areas has also created urban blight very close to high-price property in western Kowloon. It is like a large pit of 'no-man's-land' - unless you work in port logistics or drive a truck, you are unlikely to go there or even see it.
There is no space for expansion in Hong Kong. Building new terminals on Lantau is not the answer as that will just blight another part of Hong Kong. To increase handling capacity, we will have to improve our port management and use of technology.
The real challenge is how to clean up port, terminal and logistics operations so the city is healthier and more pleasant for workers in this sector and society at large. Reorganising back-up facilities are essential, and ships must be made to burn much cleaner fuel and practise slow steaming sooner rather than later. These steps are part of a well-trodden path for ports in Europe and North America as governments saw the public health costs.
Replanning the large tracts of back-up areas by the harbourfront to free up valuable land would probably generate very substantial revenue for the government, which, if used skilfully, should help strike the sort of pragmatic bargain needed to reorganise back-up facilities in return for better public health and living environment.
A forward-looking administration working with a new and effective harbour authority may just be what Hong Kong needs to sort this problem out.
Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange. firstname.lastname@example.org