kevin sinclair's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 December, 2003, 12:00am

The financial secretary looks for ways to cut public spending. The director of audit hunts terrier-like for misused public funds. The ombudsman is supposed to probe maladministration. The Environmental Protection Department aims to protect the ecology, and the Country Parks Board stands guard over the sanctity of the countryside.

Ladies and gentlemen, have a look at the zealous wastrels and practising vandals of the Water Supplies Department. This one minor department has sufficient examples of wasted funds, stupid projects, ecological defacement, ham-fisted bureaucratic bungling and incompetent operations to keep all the above watchdogs busy for weeks.

For additional fun, cast a cynical glance over the Rural Public Works (RPW) programme, a slush-bucket used to dispense largesse to any hamlet boss who wants a favour. Between them, these two hapless troupes of spendthrifts cost us a fortune doing jobs which are totally unnecessary.

Take one tiny example, a pointless project currently wasting a few million taxpayers' dollars. For many years a rutted track wound 420 metres from Hiram's Highway outside Sai Kung to connect with Po Lo Che Road. The unused path is so obscure it has no name. It goes from nowhere to nowhere.

Idle villagers who live hundreds of yards away decided it would be nice if the unused track was turned into a road.

Always ready to oblige the most fanciful whims of rural bosses, the RPW hierarchy decided in 2001 that this totally useless job should be done. Busybody district committee politicians and public servants from assorted departments all agreed; the director of audit should be demanding they explain why.

In the course of this make-work tomfoolery, the boys at Water Supplies were told in June 2001 and again in January 2002 about the road-building plans. In August 2002, a battalion of workers equipped with concrete mixers, earth movers and trucks poured into the anonymous road. By January 2003, the dilapidated track had been transformed into a broad road with concrete a metre thick.

It looked splendid. But still, the road to nowhere was not used except as a lover's lane at night, a place for commercial salesmen to nap in their cars during the day and as a free parking space for used car salesmen.

This ridiculous largesse cost $986,275. It achieved nothing. A few months after the expensive concrete was laid, the newly laid road was suddenly blocked off. Water Supplies work teams were busy tearing it up.

What was going on? Oh, I was told, the Water Supplies Department is laying 800 metres of water mains 'to enhance the reliability of water supply'. The cost for this was $2 million. In the name of sanity, what are these clowns up to?

On one hand, the water boys sit on a committee which decides to build a worthless road. A bunch of other water boys are busily laying plans to put down water pipes underneath the concrete their pals are laying down.

Is there no co-ordination? Don't they talk to each other? Those responsible for this sort of costly cock-up should be sacked. But in the tranquil Realm of the Iron Rice Bowl such incompetence is ignored. I wrote to Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen and to new Director of Audit Benjamin Tang Kwok-bun asking what they thought of such scandalous waste of money and obvious ineptitude. No reply.

Water Supplies seems a law unto itself. Back in 1980 they drew up a list of hundreds of remote villages that did not have piped water. Over the next decades, many of these hamlets became ghost towns, either totally deserted or with a handful of residents. Common sense did not dawn on the water boys that the plans laid 22 years ago were outdated. This year they are largely wasting $45 million on taking water to places where nobody lives, and next year they will throw away a further $24 million.

In the course of this spendthrift construction, they slash through virgin woodlands, scar hillsides and devastate country parks. Work gangs commonly dump concrete, used equipment and garbage along isolated tracks.

But - hey ho! hey ho! - it's off to work they go, uncaring and usually unchallenged as they cut and hack their way through the countryside. After years of this costly vandalism, somebody has woken up.

The Legco panel on planning, lands and works now feels that putting in metered water to 19 remote villages with tiny populations should be postponed. Hallelujah to that! It only took 22 years for someone to wake up. That's turbo-jet progress in the wacky world of water supplies.