Preserving countryside must be a priority

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 May, 2008, 12:00am

Drab concrete paths and long metal railings; giant retaining walls and concrete drainage channels. They are the results of 'improvement works' that dot country parks and rural areas across Hong Kong. There is little doubt that many of these projects are necessary to provide better access and safety. But they often have a ruinous effect on the natural scenic beauty - which is the reason the paths were built and the country parks created in the first place.

As we report in Post Magazine today, the government's budgets for these improvement projects have dramatically expanded since 2000, with HK$1.5 billion allocated this financial year for flood-prevention works alone. And while large projects such as the harbour reclamation or widening work on Sai Kung's Ho Chung River attract widespread public interest, dozens of smaller ones simply escape notice until it is too late. Yet, taken together, these public works will have a profound and permanent impact on the landscape in rural areas.

To the government's credit, departments are now required - at least on paper - to consult district council members, rural committee representatives, residents and other stakeholders such as green groups. But this usually happens only when they involve large projects such as the Ho Chung River widening work. It is still not uncommon, according to WWF Hong Kong, for officials to put up rural project notices in out-of-the-way places where few people are likely to come across them.

In such cases, little effort is made to bring them to public attention. And sadly, the tendency to 'over-engineer' and 'under-consult' remains with some of these projects.

A recent example has been the attempted paving of a footpath that is part of the Hong Kong Trail in Big Wave Bay, Shek O. This has been put on hold following hikers' objections, but projects like these could easily have been carried out without anyone noticing.

Given the number and scale of these works, officials should be more forthright. All such notices, whether they involve large or small projects, should be prominently displayed. Adequate lead time for public consultations must be allowed. A central database involving these projects should be set up for public inspection. Stakeholders should continue to be informed of progress, with the possibility held open that works may be scaled back or halted if necessary. Preserving the natural character of our countryside must be the uppermost priority.