Singapore spent 10 years and $1.17 billion to clean up its river. Sydney spent the same amount of time and $377 million on restoring its harbour. Hong Kong spent 20 years and $8.2 billion to build a sewage treatment plant which, instead of cleaning the harbour, is further polluting it. What went wrong? The Hong Kong government argues that the problem is unforeseen, and only temporary because the sewage plant forms part of a wider Harbour Area Treatment Scheme. Contractors working on the first stage of the scheme, the treatment plant on Stonecutters Island, are blamed for walking off the job before it was completed, leading to engineering problems and delays. Conservation groups are blamed for having derailed an original plan for a tunnelled outfall, which would have removed the problem from Hong Kong's shores by depositing it on our neighbours' doorstep. Amid the finger-pointing and shoulder-shrugging, an army of consultants is busily preparing options for completing the scheme. Our $8.2 billion sewage plant, which is capable of removing only about half of the bacteria from the 1.3 million cubic metres of sewage it treats every day, will continue to pollute the harbour and nearby beaches until the scheme is completed in about 10 years' time. Regrettably, the closure of four beaches last week was dismissed by a senior official as a very unfortunate price to pay in the short term. If 10 years is considered short-term, it is not surprising we have fallen so far behind the efforts of other world cities in cleaning up our act. The Hong Kong government only woke up to the fact it had to deal with the millions of cubic metres of untreated sewage being pumped straight into the harbour in 1989. Until the mid-1980s, Hong Kong's sewage disposal strategy was to allow the city's untreated sewage to be carried away by the harbour's strong currents. This strategy was considered to be appropriate at the time and Hong Kong enjoyed quite good results until reclamation and an ever-narrowing harbour changed the patterns of the current. Government might argue this was one of the unforeseen problems, but it is a sad indictment that until that point, the government had failed to so much as think about putting in place a sewage treatment scheme. Worse yet, having finally contemplated the idea, it has taken another 20 years to put in place just the first step of the scheme, a treatment plant providing questionable levels of treatment. The harbour is Hong Kong's greatest asset, and not just because it underpins our role as a regional shipping centre. The glittering lights from the dense urban settlements on both sides of the harbour now count as one of the world's most amazing sights, to which millions of tourists are drawn every year. This spectacular attraction, for both locals and visitors, could lose its allure if cruise boats and ferries had to sail in filthy waters. Are the people of Hong Kong so detached and unmoved by their harbour that they are prepared to wait until its waters have turned black? Clearly not. By all means let the consultants fast-track their studies. Budgetary constraints should not be allowed to hold back the construction of sewage treatment facilities. As they have a long economic life and bring benefits for generations to come, there is simply no need for the government to pay for their construction costs up front. With some imaginative financial planning, loans could be raised to cover the bill. The community should not have to wait another 10 years to see further improvement to water quality in the harbour.