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Hong Kong environmental issues

Green groups push for better eco-protection after mysterious Hong Kong wetland fires

Police are investigating suspicions of arson after two hill fires broke out back-to-back in the Nam Sang Wai conservation area, home to reed beds and a stopover for migratory birds

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 9:46am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 March, 2018, 11:16am

Two back-to-back hill fires – suspected to be arson cases – in a Yuen Long wetland this week clearly shows the need for stronger protection of Hong Kong’s best ecological assets, green groups said on Thursday.

Swathes of the northern Nam Sang Wai wetland conservation area were set ablaze mysteriously in two separate incidents on Monday and Tuesday, scorching about 14 hectares of reed beds, abandoned fish ponds and trees. Several trees were charred but no people or animals were hurt.

Two fires in two days at Hong Kong wetland ‘suspicious’

The Fire Services Department found at least one of the fires suspicious in the absence of any identifiable natural cause.

Police are currently investigating whether foul play was involved, checking CCTV footage and trying to locate witnesses.

They were also doing background checks to see if there could be “any positive motives”, such as land disputes, the source added.

But the source said detectives have found no suspicious leads for arson yet.

Nam Sang Wai, near the protected Mai Po and Deep Bay Ramsar sites, is home to the second largest reed bed in Hong Kong and is an important stopover site for migratory birds.

About 80 per cent of the land is privately-owned, the bulk of it by Nam Sang Wai Development, which is jointly controlled by Henderson Land Development and the Fu family, led by Adrian Fu Hau-chak, chief executive of KHI Holdings. The developers said they found the fires suspicious and had filed a report to police.

The remaining 20 per cent belongs to the government.

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On Thursday, a lawmaker and a coalition of 14 environmental groups said the fires were “highly suspicious”, calling on authorities to investigate thoroughly and step up protection of the area.

“These are the third and fourth hill fires in eight years … and probably the most serious,” the Democratic Party’s Roy Kwong Chun-yu, who is also a Yuen Long district councillor, said.

“There were multiple sources of the fires and the distance between some took as long as five to six minutes on a bike. It would be hard to convince one that these multiple areas went up in flames coincidently and simultaneously.”

Harold Li was in Nam Sang Wai filming a music video for his band on Monday evening. He claimed to have seen three middle-aged men in masks on bicycles lurking in the area just before the fires broke out. Accompanied by Kwong, he made a police report on Wednesday.

“This is quite astonishing, ” Li told the Post.

Nam Sang Wai Development said it felt “extremely troubled” by the frequent damage to the wetland and was worried about further damage and safety risks to tourists and nearby residents.

“Security, removal of weeds and fire prevention measures will be strengthened,” a spokeswoman said.

Enforcement failure in protected Hong Kong wetlands area

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense, urged police to find the culprits and for the government to prioritise conservation of “Hong Kong’s backyard”.

“We request that the government think about purchasing the land … or a non-in- situ land exchange.”

Paul Zimmerman of Designing Hong Kong, said the government needed to clear up unresolved land ownership and development issues. “This is another warning sign. As long as these issues remain unresolved, there will always be people tempted to create damage.”

Zimmerman was referring to how a similar fire broke out in the area’s reed beds in 2010 and another in 2016, just months after an application to the Town Planning Board by developers to build over 2,500 flats and houses was rejected on environmental grounds.

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The cycle of applications, rejections and appeals date back to 1996 when the developers proposed a 43-hectare golf course spread over the site and 2,550 homes scattered over the course in well-spaced clusters, according to the board’s court documents.

Their final appeal was rejected in February last year, requiring them to file a fresh planning application.

On Thursday, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department revised its estimate of the damage from 12 hectares to 14 hectares and said it would continue to monitor the site.

Ng Hei-man of the Conservancy Association said there would be “more or less” some short-term ecological impact on the wetland, especially the reed beds, but stressed that more observation would be needed.