Wishing Well

I’m having a lot of trouble wrapping my head around this story of the fresh water contaminated with excessive levels of lead.

The situation first came to light after a check on tap water quality in a public housing estate commissioned by a political party. Now just stop right there and 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 whistleblower or a complaint from a resident.

Now extend that thinking process just a little further. 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 we come, logically, to a fork in the road. Either such a report was made and brushed aside, or for some reason it was thought not worthwhile pursuing this obvious 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. By one of those charming coincidences that so enrich life in our city, the government was prepared to release the name of the plumber concerned, a Mr Lam Tak Sum, on the very same day that it was in court fighting not to have to release the names of the seven police officers filmed beating a demonstrator in last year’s Occupy movement.

Now the story has flowed in all directions like the aftermath of a river bursting its banks. Checks on water quality elsewhere found the same problem in estates built by other, local, construction companies. (So the reflex defence of mainland interests was perhaps unnecessary?) Checks on other public housing estates plumbed by the aforementioned Lam came up clean. Now there are stories that the same problem may be found in private housing blocks also, not just public ones.

Before we go further it is worth reminding ourselves that construction defects are always the responsibility of the main contractor. He after all selects the sub-contractors and is supposed to supervise their work. And while we are on the subject of supervision, where was the army of Housing Department professional staff 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 housing estates both public and private, internal fittings and soldering work (where did the solder material itself come from?). 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?