My Take

Water Supplies Department bears brunt of responsibility for scandal

Although no one has been held individually responsible for the lead-in-water fiasco, hopefully lessons have been learned and remedial action will be taken

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 11:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 June, 2016, 11:14pm

“A classic case of buck-passing”. So concludes the independent commission of inquiry into the lead-tainted water scandal.

Perhaps this is what Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor meant when she responded to questions about the commission’s final findings that no official would be held responsible because it was caused by systemic failure.

The merry-go-round of blaming went on among the Water Supplies Department, the Housing Authority, and private contractors and plumbers.

But clearly the Water Supplies Department deserves most of the blame. The commission reserves the longest criticism against its officials.

Hong Kong’s Water Supplies Department faces bulk of criticism in tainted-water report

When the scandal was first exposed, Director of Water Supplies Enoch Lam Tin-sing tried to fudge his department’s responsibility. Even now, he is sidestepping questions on whether his department should bear the greatest responsibility.

Instead, the government tried to put all the blame on a single subcontractor, Lam Tak-sum, a physically disabled licensed plumber. But it turned out the contamination was so widespread that blaming a single person was untenable.

Now you have top officials from Carrie Lam down who say it was the system that failed, so no one in particular should be blamed.

It’s all very well for officials to close ranks and circle the wagons. But by refusing to take responsibility, they discredit the entire government and make its accountability system an object of ridicule once again. They get to keep their jobs and multimillion-dollar pensions at the cost of eroding the credibility of the government they serve.

Still or running water? New Hong Kong lead-test standard in works, but what to sample still disputed

There is a silver lining. Independent experts for the commission said the health impact of the contamination was nowhere nearly as bad as some media reports had initially claimed. A more reliable safety protocol has been imposed on the Water Supplies Department to follow. The commission stressed water quality standards could have been tightened two decades ago. But it’s better late than never.

The commission found the Water Supplies Department to be responsible on multiple fronts: failure to uphold a robust regime of licensed plumbers, to update the law to keep up with safety standards, and to exercise its legal powers to ensure compliance by the trade. It questioned the department’s claim that it was only responsible for the quality of water up to the connection points, that is, well before water reaches the taps of homes. Hopefully, these problems have now been remedied.