Trees, normally, are no threat to public safety. They improve the environment and are welcome features in concrete jungles like Hong Kong. But when they are not managed properly, they get sick, collapse and injure passers-by. Over the years, we have seen far too many tragedies which could have been avoided with better strategies and co-ordination among departments. As a result, a new bureaucracy that costs taxpayers an annual HK$19 million was put in place in 2009 to take better care of our trees.
The recent suggestion by a tree expert that the government has covered up the spread of an incurable disease among the city's trees is worrying. Tree experts say brown root rot, an incurable "cancer" for trees, was first officially identified in an infected century-old banyan tree in Kowloon Park in 2007. But the authority did not alert the public or experts of a panel as the disease continued to spread. Root rot was confirmed to have caused the collapse of a 14-metre tree on Nathan Road last month in which five people were injured. Another heritage tree in Lei Yue Mun was removed on Monday. Only upon enquiry from this paper did the government confirm the tree was suspected to be infected with brown root rot. It remains unclear whether the government has deliberately kept the people in the dark about the scale of the problem. Nor do we know whether any steps have been taken to contain the spread. But the non-disclosure of vital information does not meet public expectations of transparency.
Trees collapse for various reasons. It is unrealistic to expect that the Tree Management Office can prevent tens of thousands of trees from falling down. But the protection for trees and human lives goes beyond putting in place a new regime. The office has a more active role to play. With better care and vigilant surveillance, accidents can be avoided. In an increasingly open society, timely dissemination of information related to public safety is a must. Tree management officials have to show appropriate actions have been taken without delay.