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Hong Kong's tainted water scare

The mystery of Hong Kong's lead-in-water scandal demands answers

Mike Rowse says aside from the questions about how the contamination was uncovered, the priority now is to check the entire process of water treatment and delivery for loopholes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 10:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2015, 10:31am

I'm having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around this story of lead contamination of our fresh water. The situation first came to light after a water quality check in a public housing estate commissioned by a political party.

Now think about that for a moment. There are elections for the district councils coming up in the autumn and for the Legislative Council next year, it is true, but did the Democratic Party campaign manager suddenly come up with the idea of checking water quality as a vote winner?

It doesn't seem likely. The thought was surely planted in the party's head either by a resident's complaint or a whistleblower.

If you were a whistleblower who knew that there had been some substandard work of whatever nature, or a resident who thought there was something dodgy about the water coming from your tap, surely the first place to go would be the estate management office and the housing department headquarters. So either such a report was made and brushed aside, or it was thought not worthwhile pursuing this route.

Whichever reason applies, there must be at least a suspicion that it had something to do with the identity of the parties involved. The main contractor for Kai Ching Estate in Kowloon City was the Hong Kong subsidiary of the China State Construction Company. Many prefabricated parts of the work were imported from the mainland, which, as everyone knows, is the source of most of Hong Kong's water.

Did our ministers fear that this could become another sorry chapter in the ongoing "mainland versus Hongkongers" saga? Before you could say the words "pre-emptive strike", out came statements from government officials that the likely source of the excess lead was soldering work done, conveniently, by a local plumber, whose name was promptly released.

Thereafter, checks on water quality elsewhere found the same problem in estates built by another, local, construction company. Checks on other public housing estates handled by the plumber, Lam Tak-sum, came up clean. Now there are stories that the same problem may be found in a hospital, and also private housing blocks, not just public ones.

It is worth remembering that construction defects are always the responsibility of the main contractor. After all, it selects the subcontractors and is supposed to supervise their work. And while we are on the subject of supervision, where was the army of housing department professionals while this faulty work was going on?

We need to check the entire process, starting with the quality of the water leaving the Water Supplies Department treatment centres, the pipes that convey it under our streets, the pipes within both public and private housing estates, internal fittings and soldering work. Are any of the older pipes, installed before strict limits on lead were introduced, starting to wear thin? Have the craftsmen conducting the soldering work become less proficient or careful?

Obviously, given the scale of the task, priorities will have to be set. Working parties have been established to start the process for public housing estates.

No doubt, answers to the above questions will emerge in due course.

But if I were the chief executive or the chief secretary, what I would most want to know is why Hong Kong citizens felt their first or most reliable line of defence in a critical situation was a pan-democratic political party rather than one of the official avenues for complaint. Has public confidence in the integrity of the administration plumbed new depths?

Mike Rowse is managing director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk