Conventional wisdom has it that nothing much can be done when misfortunes befall. But that does not mean there is no lesson to learn. Four years ago, the government appointed a high-level task force on the city's tree management strategy after a falling sick tree killed a teenage girl in Stanley. After two years of review, a new office has been set up to take better care of our trees. Taxpayers were told that the annual HK$19 million extra spending on the new bureaucracy would see better co-ordination and clearer responsibilities among departments. It was hoped that tree-related injuries and fatalities could be reduced as a result.
Regrettably, tragedies continue to occur. The latest accident saw a 29-year-old truck passenger crushed by a falling century-old banyan as the vehicle travelled along Lam Kam Road in Tai Po nine days ago. In June 2010, a cyclist was killed when a diseased tree fell on him in Sha Tin. Another five people were injured three months ago when a 14-metre tree infected with in incurable disease collapsed in Tsim Sha Tsui.
Accidents do happen. However, if they remain the norm rather than the exception, questions have to be asked why. It is disturbing to learn that bureaucracy appears to have contributed to the tragedy. According to the Lands Department, the tree that killed last week happened to be on an "unallocated site", which means that despite high vehicle flow, the surrounding trees do not warrant comprehensive risk assessment unless complaints have been received. It is only speculation whether the tragedy could have been avoided had officials proactively inspected the trees in the area. But a regime that only acts on complaints leaves much to be desired.
Trees become structurally unsafe and jeopardise public safety if they lack proper care. But what appears to be common sense becomes the blind spot of our civil servants. They prefer rule books rather than making their own sensible judgment. Sick trees collapsing and killing people is a misfortune. But if negligence and red tape played a part, it is inexcusable.