New thinking needed on managing our waste

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2006, 12:00am

A clean harbour for just an extra 10 cents a day. That tantalising prospect has been put forward by the government as it tries to dig deeper into people's pockets to finance an expanded sewage treatment scheme.

Officials have obviously taken great care in packaging their proposal to make it acceptable. After all, who would oppose the application of the polluter-pays principle if charges are going to go up by just 10 cents a day for most households? That is until a careful scrutiny of the figures reveals that charges will actually rise by much more.

There will not be just a one-off increase but continuous upward adjustments for the next 10 years. At present, the average household pays about HK$11 a month, and about 90 per cent of households pay no more than HK$20. By 2016-17, the average household will pay about HK$27 a month. Households will see their sewage charges going up by between 7 and 29 per cent, depending on their amount of discharge.

The seemingly steep rates of increase should not blind us to the fact that Hong Kong's sewage charges will remain low by international standards and small in absolute terms. Even so, it is still important to get the principles right.

Officials have decided that the public purse should bear the HK$8 billion cost of building the sewage treatment facilities. We agree, as the facilities constitute an essential infrastructure.

A strict application of the user-pays principle in recovering the construction bill would have imposed an unbearable burden on the average household. But the decision to recover only 80 per cent of the facilities' operating costs is debatable. That is especially so because the government has maintained its adherence to the principle of recovering the full costs.

It is apparent that the decision is politically motivated. Under the current proposal, charges will go up by just over 9 per cent a year. Full recovery would have meant a double-digit rate of annual increase and made the package less palatable. Given the political circumstances, officials probably feel that the current package would stand a better chance of sailing through the Legislative Council.

In particular, the government is planning to introduce the increases by way of legislation. A bill setting out the yearly sewage charges over the next 10 years will be tabled for vetting. Legislators will no doubt query the accuracy of the government's projections about operating costs. Setting the recovery rate at 80 per cent would therefore seem prudent. At worst, if costs turn out to be not as high as expected, then 100 per cent cost recovery might be achieved without having to raise charges further.

What is disappointing is that the government has proposed no measures to reduce the amount of sewage through conservation. Statistics reveal that per capita domestic consumption of water has risen steadily over the past two decades. The annual rates of increases ranged from less than 1 per cent to almost 5 per cent. The cumulative increase was more than 30 per cent. Officials say that was because water and sewage charges had not been raised for so long. They hope that higher sewage charges will act like a virtual green tax to encourage conservation.

That may well be true. But a more aggressive approach should be adopted if we are really serious about conservation. Currently, Hong Kong releases about 340 billion litres of waste water into the sea each year.

In September, the Toilet Association estimated that amount could be reduced by 170 billion litres if old cisterns and pipe systems in buildings were altered and flushing habits changed. Elsewhere, bath water has been recycled for irrigation and even human consumption.

Hong Kong has been planning its water and sewage infrastructures according to demand - a strategy that means ever more resources being consumed to meet surging usage. It is time we introduced demand-management measures to reduce the wasteful consumption of a precious resource and thought about recycling it.