Officials too slow in tackling water thefts, lawmakers say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 December, 2011, 12:00am


Lawmakers blamed red tape, lax monitoring and weak enforcement by the Water Supplies Department for a loss of HK$160 million in water revenues last year.

The losses, highlighted in the Director of Audit's report two weeks ago, were due to inaccurate metering and illegal use of water.

The report was the focus of a Legislative Council Public Accounts Committee hearing yesterday in which the department's officials came under fire.

'It is evident that the department is bureaucratic,' Civic Act-up legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan said, criticising its slow reaction to the problem.

Director of water supplies Ma Lee-tak countered: 'Being bureaucratic is not the working style of the government.'

Ho said officers were slow in seeking court warrants to enter premises and cut pipes used for water theft. The process now takes about a week. She said the 13-strong enforcement team was understaffed.

Accountancy sector lawmaker Paul Chan Mo-po also criticised the department, saying: 'Even if [your department] is not bureaucratic, it is not taking the work seriously.'

Chan faulted the department for being slow in alerting the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department to cases of illegal water use in government-run wet markets. The food department, he noted, had the right to terminate the leases of stallholders who broke the law.

Ma pledged to issue a wide range of measures to tackle water theft and to improve metering. He assured lawmakers they would try to shorten the time needed to get warrants, and that inter-departmental communication had improved since the auditor exposed the problem.

Within the next six months, he said, the department would ask the pipe workers' association and the Construction Association to appeal to their members not to use water illegally and to report such cases.

The department's assistant director of customer services, Chin Chu-sum, said that in previous cases of theft - at government construction sites with contracted-out works - they prosecuted individual workers but not contractors or subcontractors. Ma said officials now wanted to pin down the companies involved.

The department would watch for any unusual change in the metering patterns of individual clients. Officers would monitor cases of a sharp drop in usage, he said. He pledged to replace old meters but stopped short of giving a timetable.

The department would also look for discrepancies by comparing metering levels in large areas with the readings of individual meters within the areas.