Finding answers to tainted drinking water a test for Hong Kong administration

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 1:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 July, 2015, 1:29am

That there is panic and anger is hardly surprising when the lives of tens of thousands of public housing tenants are threatened by a drinking water health scare. As the contamination crisis spreads, the pressure on the government to act also grows. It is imperative that officials come up with better interim water supply arrangements and quickly find out what went wrong and who should be held responsible.

It has been confirmed that the plumbing in at least four estates, a university student dormitory and a government office building had been dealt with by the same licensed person who handled the work at Kai Ching Estate, where water samples were found to have contained excessive levels of lead. The plumber was named at a government press conference at weekend, but he reportedly denied he was to blame. Separately, water samples taken from one of the blocks at Kai Ching Estate were also found to contain bacteria that can cause legionnaires' disease, raising more disturbing questions on water safety.

The priority now is to address tenants' needs and worries. This includes providing safe drinking water to those affected. Health checks for the vulnerable should also be available.

The responsibility issue and scale of the problem remain unclear at this stage. The special investigation committee announced by the government was an obvious step to answer those questions. It is disappointing that officials at yesterday's press briefing were still unable to tell what went wrong. It was only confirmed that a small portion of Kai Ching Estate units were built with components with pre-fitted water pipes from the mainland, but officials stopped short of saying whether it could be the source of the problem. The true scale of the problem will only be revealed after test results for samples taken from other affected buildings become available.

With public housing being a major source of votes in November's district council polls, the crisis provides a good opportunity for political parties to canvass for votes. If officials mishandle the issue, we could see a repeat of the outcome of the short-piling scandal 16 years ago, in which the Housing Authority chief was forced to resign after it was discovered that subsidised housing blocks in Tin Shui Wai had been built with substandard foundations. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has put livelihood issues at the top of his agenda, including a city-wide campaign to keep Hong Kong clean. But he must realise that tainted drinking water is no less important an issue. His administration now faces a stern test.