Getting to the root of Hong Kong's tree problem

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 3:32am

The well-being of trees, admittedly, does not stand out as a matter of priority in our society, and government is not at the forefront as far as tree management is concerned. Unfortunately, a series of fatal accidents involving falling trees has put the problem under the public spotlight. Since 2010, a special tree office has been set up to "champion a strategic policy on greening, landscaping and tree management, with a view to achieving sustainable development of a greener environment". A surf of its website shows a wealth of detail - policy statement, guidelines and education materials. The effort put in seems reassuring. Hopes of Hong Kong becoming a green city were high.

The reality, however, is still far from satisfactory. Last summer, the South China Morning Post reported brown root rot, a virulent disease first discovered in 2007, was apparently spreading among the city's trees. The disease was confirmed to have caused the collapse of a 14-metre tree and injured five people last July. Yet the government did not seem alarmed and failed to alert the public or experts of the disease. Sadly, it was confirmed that the problem had spread to 11 of the 18 districts, with some valuable trees and forests infected.

It remains unclear how effectively the policy and guidelines have been put into practice. What is sure is that officials have long been aware of the situation, but did not bother to get down to the root of the problem. The tree office, which cost taxpayers HK$19 million a year, is still unable to explain the worsening situation. The measures to contain the spread, such as stepping up education for tree inspectors, do not seem effective.

At stake is not just the loss of a few majestic trees or green belts. That passers-by are still injured or killed by collapsing trees every now and then underlines the threat to public safety. Weak trees, experts say, are particularly vulnerable to infections. That the disease has spread rapidly suggests the trees have not been given sufficient care. It would be a waste of taxpayers' money if the office fails to take better care of them.