Pollution panorama: Hong Hong’s shrinking views and shrinking lungs

Every time I look across Victoria Harbour, I’m reminded that people are dying

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 April, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

While I live in a tiny little flat like so many Hongkongers, I have the good fortune to enjoy a panoramic view of Victoria Harbour from the Kowloon side. On a clear day with blue skies, it’s a spectacular sight, with gleaming skyscrapers along the waterfront from Causeway Bay to Central providing an impressive backdrop to the ships and boats sailing in and out of one of the most famous ports in the world.

The problem is clear days have become an elusive and endangered phenomenon in this city. In fact I can’t remember the last time I looked out of my window and got my money’s worth. Those gleaming skyscrapers are constantly shrouded in dull smog or haze. It’s like Blade Runner out there – seriously, the only element missing from this dystopian scene is a cyborg or two.

This goes far beyond a man complaining about his view. Scientific research has shown there’s a direct link between visibility and the health impact of air pollution. According to a University of Hong Kong study back at the beginning of 2011, every loss of 6.5 kilometres of visibility translates into an increase of more than one per cent in all natural causes of death.

As grim as the thought is, the view from my window is a constant reminder that people are dying every day of illnesses as a direct consequence of this city’s filthy air.

The other day I decided to go out for a run by the waterfront, even though I had half a mind not to because, looking out of my window, I could barely distinguish our famous skyline through the haze. I reckoned I’d be breathing in so much dirty air outside, it would be the equivalent of sitting at home and smoking a cigarette. On my way out of the building I bumped into a neighbour who remarked that it was a lovely day to go jogging. She wasn’t being sarcastic. It was sunny outside with a cool breeze – and she doesn’t have my harbour view for a frame of reference.

And therein lies the crux of the problem in Hong Kong. Hardly anyone realises how bad the air is on any given day because they don’t look up at the sky or across the harbour as they go about their daily business. If they do, then they’re either in a state of jaded acceptance or denial.

Apart from the government’s reluctance or inability to take the bold and drastic action needed to fix our pollution problems, the Hong Kong Observatory is no help with its sanitised, understated or downright misleading language when issuing weather bulletins. A “fine” day in most parts of the world conjures images of clear, blue skies, sunshine and fresh air. But in the misguided meteorological vocabulary of Hong Kong, the word is a substitute for “no rain” and nothing more. It could be the foulest of days in terms of air pollution, when children and the elderly are literally warned to stay indoors for their own safety, but the Observatory’s description of the conditions outside will be “fine”. Our weather forecasters never use the word “pollution” – they religiously stick to the more nebulous “haze”. I used to get confused in the beginning when the forecast was “fine and hazy” or “fine with low visibility”, but I now understand it just means it’s not raining, and the air is as foul as ever.

We have an official air quality index but nobody reacts to the alarming numbers it registers day after day.

Did you know that babies are being born in Hong Kong with smaller and weaker lungs because of the poison in the air we breathe? Just stop and think about it. This newspaper reported this stunning fact last year and it barely caused a flutter. I wonder how many people even remember it now.

Our local green groups make the occasional bleating sounds to remind the government that this is just not acceptable for a world city, but if officials are listening, then whatever they’re smoking seems to have made them numb.

No disrespect to our increasingly belligerent and perennially protesting population, but if I were a parent in Hong Kong I’d be more worried about my child’s shrunken, blackened lungs than the right to vote for a genuine choice of chief executive in 2017, or whether Ricky Wong should get his free-television licence.

But that’s just me and my harbour view.