Cross-harbour swim revival can't be rushed

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am

Imagine the worth to Hong Kong of a video showing competitors in a cross-harbour swimming competition. Within a few frames, thoughts of Hong Kong being a place that cared little for its environment would be banished. In their place would be respect for our policies and, perhaps, a desire to holiday or perhaps live or work in our city. That is the tantalising prospect if efforts to revive the long-halted event are successful.

The amateur swimming association is behind the push and wants to resume competition next year. Its optimism is based on studies which show a marked improvement in water quality in the eastern part of Victoria Harbour, where it wants the swim staged. The Environmental Protection Department's schedule is for the water to be clean by 2013. Although it has warned that in some places, like Central and Wan Chai, e-coli levels are still high, the door for a competition remains open if a viable proposal is put forward.

Our harbour is one of the most majestic and famous in the world. A swimming competition from one side to the other would attract an eager local field and a strong international one. That would draw the global media. With so much attention, it is not in anyone's interests that such a contest goes ahead prematurely.

The event was stopped in 1978 when authorities determined that the water was unhealthy to swim in. Hong Kong's industrialisation, rise as a port, inadequate sewage treatment and lax approach to environmental protection meant that the once blue harbour had started turning toxic green.

Not until the 1990s did a popular movement for change emerge, forcing the government to clean up its act. Much has been achieved in a short amount of time.

Factories that once discharged chemicals into drains that ran into the harbour have closed. Grease trap requirements mean that restaurants can no longer cause pollution. In 2014, the Stonecutter's Island sewage treatment plant will come on stream, finally ending the practice of letting effluent flow straight into the harbour. Ever-improving EPD data shows what the work has meant, which is what has rekindled interest in cross-harbour swimming.

There is still work to be done. Conspicuously absent from the clean-up effort are typhoon shelters. Waste from boats and drains flowing into them is trapped, in effect turning them into septic tanks. Cleaning them up would be expensive, but is essential if the harbour is truly to become safe again.

Impressive infrastructure is proof that our government can achieve world-standard results when it puts its mind to a project. Dramatically cleaner harbour water shows that that is also the case with the environment, so there can be no excuses when it comes to our air and countryside. But reversing environmental neglect is more complicated than building a tunnel or bridge. It takes laws, meaningful penalties, resolve, time and the involvement of all sectors of the community.

There is no greater local challenge for Hong Kong's competitive swimmers than to race against each other across the harbour, the centrepiece of our city. They naturally would want to see how they fare against counterparts from elsewhere. Such a contest would be a sparkling addition to the international events already on our sporting calendar. With our famed skyline as the backdrop, it would be the perfect global sales pitch. For all the benefits, though, it can not be rushed into. Only when we are sure the water quality is safe to swim in year-round should it be given the go-ahead.