Take the plunge, give harbour back its sparkle

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 April, 2005, 12:00am

This picture of Victoria Harbour teeming with swimmers in the famous annual race has become a romantic image of Hong Kong's past. It should also be a vision of the future.

This week, the government expressed hopes that the cross-harbour swim, last held in 1978, could be a permanent fixture again in only eight years' time. Officials believe there should be no serious health risks by then, so long as plans for cleaning up the harbour are implemented.

The tantalising prospect conjures up other golden images of times gone by. Perhaps we will, once again, see people diving into crystal clear harbour waters to pick up coins from the sandy seabed.

A more realistic aim would be to make the harbour sufficiently safe for public swimming, an objective achieved by Sydney, Copenhagen and other cities. Sadly, there is still a long way to go.

Water quality has improved dramatically on the eastern side of the harbour since the first stage of the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme was completed in December 2001. But sewage from much of Hong Kong Island is still pumped straight into the water with minimal treatment. It is an unacceptable state of affairs.

Plans for the second stage of the scheme would put this right. All of the sewage would be treated at Stonecutters Island. But this creates new problems. Bacteria levels on the western side of the harbour have increased as a result of a greater volume of treated sewage emanating from the plant.

The government's proposed answer to this is to bring in a disinfection scheme. This will improve water quality generally - but it will involve pumping large quantities of chlorine into the harbour. It could become a giant swimming pool - safe for humans, but having the potential to do long-term ecological damage.

A better approach would be to implement speedily proposals to introduce biological treatment of sewage. The government prefers to adopt a wait-and-see attitude to this part of the plan, especially as it is very expensive.

But we have been talking about cleaning up the harbour for more than 15 years. There is no justification for further wavering. Water bills would, no doubt, rise steeply as a result. That is the price to be paid for having a harbour of which we can be proud.

The harbour is Hong Kong's greatest natural asset. It should be clean, attractive, hygienic - and accessible to the public. Restoring the annual swim would be a great symbolic event. But it would be just a part of what is needed to put the sparkle back into the harbour.