Filthy air a clear dereliction of public duty

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 May, 2010, 12:00am

One hundred and fifty years ago, there were many who believed that government had no business looking after anything other than security - law, order and national defence. But two additional tasks soon came to be seen as integral responsibilities of government, whether national or local.

One was education, as the right to literacy was acknowledged. The second was public health. A combination of rapid economic expansion, new technologies and engineering skills raised demands for government action against rampant disease - through safe water supplies and sewage systems.

Hong Kong's colonial regime, backward in many respects, acknowledged this duty of government to the common good. The treatment of illness might be left to private doctors and hospitals or those funded by charitable institutions. But preventive medicine, clean water, the sewers, standards of hygiene - even the provision of vaccinations against virulent communicable diseases - became expected of government. Only government could lay down standards and, in many cases, only government could carry out the work.

Yet today's top government officials appear to have forgotten these principles. It is obvious to most of the population that the provision of clean air is as important to citizens today as provision of clean water was 100 years ago. The dangers to public health from breathing filthy air may take longer to become apparent than drinking contaminated water, but they are no less real. It has been made clear time and again that poor air quality is already causing many premature deaths, and that the numbers will rise exponentially as the years of breathing them rise from 10 to 20 and beyond.

The administration's leaders are guilty of gross negligence and dereliction of public duty. If they were a private concern in jurisdictions such as the United States, they would be the subject of overwhelming class-action lawsuits that would bury their expectations of early retirement on fat pensions. Some combination of sloth, timidity, ignorance, miserliness or susceptibility to business interests is at work, and while the outcome is plain to see, the health damage is mostly invisible.

Investment in new, non-polluting public transport - be it trolley buses or the latest, cleanest gas or diesel - is just as much a need as investment in safe water supplies.

And how about new engines for the ferries, which enjoy government-protected franchises but are free to pollute as much as they want? How about imposing emission controls on shipping in general, as is done in most major ports. Or are officials too influenced by local transport interests who wine and dine them, or by mainland interests who suggest controls would be unpatriotic.

Instead of rules to reduce energy waste through improved building standards and urban planning, we have a government that every day sets appalling examples. For instance, not only will the Central-Wan Chai bypass increase pollution in the heart of the city, but the pile-drivers now working on the Wan Chai waterfront daily spew huge clouds of black smoke into the air.

Of course, Hong Kong cannot do anything directly about imported Pearl River Delta pollution. But its size makes it ideal for the sort of local leaps to a clean future seen in places as diverse as Denmark, Israel, Japan, Singapore and even Brazil's Curitiba city.

But instead of trying to be a world leader, it lags years, even decades, behind other cities. Officials have been told this a thousand times - urged to take action not just by green groups, but by mainstream business outfits like the foreign chambers of commerce.

Their failure to do so can only be attributed to a failure to understand one of the three fundamental duties of government - preventive public health. That's like sending an army into battle without helmets.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator