Once again the ill-fated deep tunnel sewers for Hong Kong's Strategic Sewage Disposal Scheme have come up against construction problems which are likely to delay completion for another four years. The controversial $3.3 billion project, to build four tunnels between Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi, and Tsing Yi to Stonecutters Island, has become something of a comedy of errors since it was begun in 1966.
It is harming Hong Kong's reputation for handling massive infrastructure projects efficiently and completing them on time. In spite of assurances from the Drainage Services Department that the latest episode in a continuing saga of soft terrain and water leakage problems will be overcome, it is time that the Government held a review to establish why the scheme appears to have been so flawed from the outset.
Among other questions, there should be an enquiry into why the original projections of the design engineers were so badly off-beam that subterranean water flooded into the tunnel at 100 times the rate that was forecast. Delays and rows have more than doubled the cost from the initial $1.3 billion. The project is mired in legal action between the original contractors and the Government, and in November legislators quite rightly baulked at the need to award a further $2 billion extra to pay for the completion of the works, though they had little option but to give the go-ahead.
Now that the work has begun again, the same obstacles have cropped up. Apart from revealing that the scheme will not be completed until 2002, there is the question of whether this latest delay is likely to send costs escalating even further. The Government has blamed inflation, increased consultancy fees and construction prices for the soaring bills.
Hong Kong's sewage system is in urgent need of upgrading. Last year overflowing sewage at Stanley forced the closure of two beaches. On the other side of the peninsula, St Stephen's beach had to be declared off limits because of sewage leaks. Pierced sewage pipes led to the closure of five beaches at Tuen Mun.
The health of the community is at risk as long as this continues. And the reputation of the SAR and its attempts to rebuild the ailing tourist industry both suffer. The public needs to be told precisely what has gone wrong in this enterprise, and what guarantees can be given that the work will be completed by the new deadline, without incurring extra costs.