Law needed to ensure tree safety

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 2:44am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2014, 2:47am

Shock and grief followed the latest tree accident - the fourth fatality in six years - in which a heavily pregnant woman died on Thursday. A 10-metre-tall Indian rubber tree on a private slope of a Mid-Levels residential block collapsed and crushed the 37-year-old, who was on her way to a pre-natal examination. Her 38-week foetus was saved by emergency caesarean section and was still battling for his life in hospital yesterday.

The tragedy has raised inevitable questions about the management of trees on private property. According to a tree expert who visited the scene, the fallen trunk was as brittle as a biscuit, suggesting it might have been infected with brown root rot disease for some time and been left to decay. The tree was later found to be under the care of a landscape firm hired by the residential block's management company. It has to be asked why the problem had not been fixed.

The problem of trees lacking care is not unique to residential blocks in the Mid-Levels. With countless private trees scattered across the city, the threat to human life cannot be ignored. Worryingly, the government still has no idea how many private trees pose a danger to public safety. This has much to do with its half-hearted response to the first high-profile accident, in which a female university student was killed by a collapsed tree in Stanley in 2008. Former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen then set up the HK$19 million-a-year management office for trees in public areas but dismissed the need for a tree law. His rationale was simple - trees on private land would be taken care of by their owners. Tang was proved wrong.

There are currently more than 40 laws concerning trees, meaning divided government responsibility and, possibly, buck-passing. Given there is no shortage of trees standing on private slopes in heavily built-up areas, there is a case for the government to revisit the issue. Officials remained non-committal yesterday, saying legislation needed to be backed by sufficient expertise and effective enforcement. Admittedly, a law cannot prevent accidents from happening. But a legal tool that mandates proper maintenance can at least lower the threat. Concerns over enforcement and management training should not become excuses to sit back and do nothing.

Owners, too, have a responsibility to ensure their trees are able to grow in the right conditions and do not pose a safety risk. They should not hesitate to remove trees that have become potential hazards.