Manpower shortage

July 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General | No Comments »

A window fell off a high floor of a residential building across the road from me a few days ago, landing smack on the driveway/main entrance.

Fortunately, it happened close to midnight and no one or car was passing through. Had it happened around midday, the consequence could be horrible.

Hasn’t the government kept reminding people to maintain their windows properly through posters and informercials? Indeed. This building, in fact, underwent a mandatory window inspection only a few months ago. Someone living on a lower floor told me that the inspector who checked her windows “advised” her to remove the strings she’d been using to secure a rickety joint with rubber band instead. I’m sure that’s cheaper than fixing the joint. And for sure whoever did the inspection has long collected his pay and moved on to other buildings issued with the government’s inspection orders.

What a great idea for employment generation, these inspection schemes. Some years ago there was unemployment in the construction industry. After much agitating, the government finally said, oh all right, we’ll launch ten mega projects, all the railway lines we’ve been talking about for the past ten years, plus minor works like building inspections. And all of a sudden, there aren’t enough people to make sure the infrastructure projects are implemented on schedule and there’s such demand that those in the trade can’t do their job properly.


MTR probe

July 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General | No Comments »

Guess what: one of the international experts asked to investigate the delay to the Express Rail Link is none other than Bent Flyvbjerg, the author of Megaprojects and Risks. I wonder if he’d hand out copies of the book to the government officials he’d meet.


Energy from waste and wasted opportunity

July 4th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General | No Comments »

There is a consultation on Hong Kong’s future energy mix and there is much debate over the the government’s proposed plan to build a huge incinerator in Shek Kwu Chau.

Are the two things related? Often when poor policies are formulated people complain that the various government bureaus/departments don’t talk to each other, but in this case both the energy consultation and the incinerator proposal are under the purview of the same bureau. Yet, somehow, boxed-in thinking rules the day and there appears to be no attempt to find more cost-effective solutions to the problems of energy supply and waste.

In the debate over Hong Kong’s future energy supply, the issue is dominated by whether or not some of the future supply should be obtained from the mainland grid or generated locally using natural gas. Renewal energy is mentioned but not given much weight. Now Hong Kong is unlucky when it comes to the prevailing forms of renewable energy. The sun doesn’t always shine and photovoltaic panels can’t generate much when stuck on the roof of high rises. And there isn’t always much wind either.

But what Hong Kong does have is plenty of waste. The Zero Carbon Building - designed by the Secretary for the Environment no less, when he was an architect – already uses biodiesel from waste cooking oil to generate power. As for the municipal waste that can’t be recycled and which the government is proposing to incinerate, well, why are we paying lots of money to build a huge facility that will generate even more carbon emissions, if not from the plant itself, then from the process of reclaiming the land for it and using the trucks and barges to transport the waste to the remote location for incineration?

The management consultant, qualified electrical engineer and columnist Tom Yam has long argued against the project’s huge cost to the taxpayer. What he hasn’t highlighted, however, is the opportunity for distributed energy generation that urban planners elsewhere expect to be part of the future of resilient cities. Build small incinerators throughout Hong Kong. Let them take the waste generated nearby, incinerate it and generate some electricity for the area in the process. If it’s possible to locate refuse collection points/transfer stations in all the districts throughout Hong Kong, why not small incinerators that will not be quite so costly to build?


Megaprojects and Risk

May 30th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General | 2 Comments »

Recent news is that the cost of developing the West Kowloon Cultural District has ballooned to such an extent that the money is now enough to cover only the first two of three phases of the project. There are also news about cost overruns at various major infrastructure schemes, from the boundary crossing to the Express Rail Link.

These cost overruns are typically blamed on rising construction costs, but don’t be fooled. The title of this post is in italics because it’s actually the name of a book by Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius and Werner Rothengatter (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

In the course of researching the book, the authors studied almost 150 major infrastructure projects around the world. Cost overruns, they discovered, were widespread. “The difference between actual and estimated investment cost is often 50-100%, and for many projects cost overruns end up threatening project viability.”

Rejoice – Hong Kong is not alone then. Alas, the authors also revealed that the real cause of cost overruns is not what our government would like us to believe. The main cause, according to them, is the “inadequate deliberation about risk and lack of accountability in the project decision-making process.”

Let me quote a bit more: “Accountability is low, and politicians who underestimate costs in order to have projects approved are rarely in office when actual viability can be calculated, if it ever is. Contractors and others with special interests in major projects are also eager to have their proposals accepted….Uncertainty in estimating viability is related in this way not only to the innate difficulty of predicting the future but also to power and interests. If the authorities responsible for project development and decision making fail to take this into account, namely if they do not develop the necessary institutional checks and balances for project appraisal, the risk is that the wrong projects are implemented.”

So here’s a question: who was in power at the time this book was published – round the time Hong Kong was suffering a downturn triggered by SARS – who decided to pump-prime the economy by launching a whole series of major infrastructure projects? Once a project has been approved by LegCo based on total cost that is pulled out of thin air, it enters the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” stage of development, where taxpayers have no choice but to pay for it to the bitter end, whatever the cost overrun, since abandoning it would be a waste and a cause of huge contractual claims. It’s no good scapegoating other parties for it; someone in power’s playing dice with taxpayers’ money.


It’s the planners who got it all wrong

May 2nd, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General | 1 Comment »

MTR can’t get anything right at the moment. The high-speed rail link is behind schedule, the century-old East Rail keeps breaking down, people complain about overcrowding at all hours, and key personnel are jumping ship.

Not a few commentators have said that these problems wouldn’t arise had the government emphasised more diversity in public transport rather than shift more and more people onto the MTR. Actually, the issue is not the MTR’s share of public transport but the whole urban planning approach.

When the MTR network was initially developed, it only covered the urban core of Hong Kong. The focus was on moving people within this urban core more efficiently. East Rail, then run by the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, was designed to facilitate the familial visits of those with relatives living on the other side of the border and business trips for businessmen with factories in Shenzhen and beyond. It wasn’t meant to be a commuter line.

When new towns started to be developed in the 1970s, they were meant to be self-contained towns that would provide both homes and jobs for their residents. The idea was soon abandoned however, when the dearth of jobs on offer in these places forced people to commute back to the urban core to work. Instead of looking into ways to generate more employment opportunities in the new towns, the focus was switched entirely to the provision of more efficient transport links to the urban core.

Rail transport has a lot of merit compared with road transport; it doesn’t burn any petrol, is low-carbon and doesn’t cause any roadside pollution. But when the whole urban planning model is based on using the mass transit network to shift a city with a population of seven million, most of them residing in remote new towns, to a few key job centres in the urban core, the system’s going to be overwhelmed. The overcrowding is actually a sign that the model is working very well indeed.

The solution, however, is not increasing train frequency but re-examining the planning of Hong Kong – not just in terms of land use but also job creation.

Are the new towns planned with a good mix of shops, factories and offices to provide employment locally? Currently only two new towns – Tai Po and Tseung Kwan O – provide some form of employment for lower to middle-income groups at their respective industrial estates. Tung Chung residents can find jobs at the airport or the theme park, but places like Ma On Shan and Tin Shui Wai are little more than remote sleeper towns. It’s OK if one has a middle-class income that allows one to suffer the commute to the urban core to work; if not, then life can be pretty tough. There’s good reason for Tin Shui Wai to be dubbed the “city of sadness”. This is also why those who called on the government to build a new office complex not at Tamar but in Tin Shui Wai made a lot of sense. At the very least, the civil servants who don’t live in the western New Territories would be travelling in the opposite direction to everybody else heading towards Central, thus easing the overcrowding.

Trains may be a more environmentally friend way of moving about, but the truly sustainable way of living is for homes and workplaces to be within walking distance of each other.


A fast fast

April 14th, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Culture, General | No Comments »

How often are charitable campaigns just opportunities for us to feel good about ourselves rather than genuinely helping others?

World Vision just concluded a successful fundraising at Aberdeen sports ground, where about 2,000 took part in a 30-hour fast to raise funds and awareness of poverty.

Apparently a mother found the idea so meaningful she drove her son all the way from Guangzhou to take part. When she’s not happily feeling smug about having made a contribution, perhaps she can reflect on the practical good she could have done by simply not making the trip, thereby saving a significant amount of carbon emissions from burning non-renewable fossil fuels. And how many people will they be able to feed if they simply sell the car and give that money to the poor?


Climate change spares no one

April 3rd, 2014 atam Posted in Building, Climate change, Earth, General | No Comments »

Well, there may have been flooding and storms around the world, but climate change barely rated a mention in Hong Kong’s press until a once-in-200-years rainstorm drenched Festival Walk.

Did you, for example, hear much about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report when it was released last September? No? Funny how the papers are suddenly carrying IPCC’s warning about the threat imposed by climate change on people and livelihoods.

The deluge that brought not just heavy rain but hailstones on Sunday March 30 occurred in the wake of the completion of three stormwater drainage systems across Hong Kong. At the time they were under construction, a query was raised as to why they were designed to cope with once-in-50-years storms when once-in-100-years storms could become a common occurrence in the future. Lo and behold, global warming has gathered such pace that a once-in-200-years storm caught not a few people by surprise. Now even the finance secretary is talking about climate change in the context of the need to build a desalination plant in Hong Kong.

It seems that whenever there’s a problem in this city, whether it’s economic, social or environmental, the preferred solution is always to throw money on building more hardware. Economic development means building hotels and theme parks for tourists. Social problems are to be addressed by building more flats and hospitals. Environmental problems? Expand the landfills, build a desalination plant.

When will the authorities wake up to the need to focus on the software? The economy cannot thrive without creative people with a wide range of skills, not low-paid tour guides and waiters. Social issues cannot be solved if doctors and nurses are not treated better and flats continue to be regarded as speculative investments. And we certainly won’t solve the problems of waste and water shortage without people learning to change their habits.

It’s funny how people moan about their flights being stuck due to bad weather. Nobody ever clicks that all that flying around is part of the problem in the first place. According to WWF’s ecological footprint report 2010, “air travel accounted for nearly 55% of the average annual carbon emissions for nearly 6,000 people who used WWF’s carbon calculator”. Someone I know who conscientiously cut the plastic windows out of envelopes before setting the paper portion aside for recycling is scornful of those who waste food, even those who doggy-bag food they can’t finish at restaurants because usually the plastic or styrofoam containers get thrown away afterwards. But next thing you know, he’s off to the Galapagos or Machu Picchu.

Has it occurred to anyone that all tourists are ‘locusts’, to borrow a touchy term that’s been adopted to criticise mainland visitors to Hong Kong? It’s not just the aviation emissions they produce. Think of any once-pristine place that becomes swarmed with tourists, places that don’t just lose their natural beauty but also the integrity of their people. What was Phuket like before it became what it is today? Bali? Does being bussed around tourist spots or being forced to go shopping help anyone understand anything about the foreign lands they visit? Does selling silly souvenirs or working as tour guides develop a people’s potential?

Imagine the amount of carbon emissions that can be saved if people learn to savour life right where they are rather than always yearn to go somewhere exotic. Imagine the amount that can be saved this way rather than just switching off the lights and recycling envelopes.


Supporting the wealth gap

March 29th, 2014 atam Posted in Building, General, Peak oil | 1 Comment »

One rule for the rich, another rule for the poor, and that’s official.

The Planning Department has apparently revised the rules regarding parking spaces to permit housing projects with larger flats to provide more car park spaces while those with smaller flats will have the number of parking spaces reduced.

While it makes total sense for flats located close to the MTR to not have any parking space at all, does it make sense for larger flats that only the rich can afford to be allocated more parking spaces? Hong Kong’s excellent public transport system is such that, even if one’s living in posh districts like the south side of Hong Kong Island, one’s bound to find a combination of buses and minibuses providing a reliable and regular service, in addition to a plethora of private shutter bus services set up to serve various residential complexes. But of course, the well-off can’t be expected to take public transport; they must drive their fast cars or be driven around town by their chauffeurs.

Does Hong Kong have a problem finding sites for more housing? Well, why is precious space being allocated to cars then, especially when car parks are so often exploited to push up the height of buildings, the better to capture whatever view there is, natural ventilation be damned?

Motorists are complaining about a lack of parking spaces and the number of parking tickets they get. If they’re to give up motoring, they’d save a chunk of money maintaining their cars and paying fines while Hong Kong’s roads will be that much less polluted and less congested. The funny thing is, while car ownership has been increasing, only a fraction of licensed vehicles are on the road at any one time. Some people actually do use other forms of transport during the week, taking the car out only at weekends. So for much of the time, these cars just hog space that could house people instead.

There’s a vision for a smart city in which driverless vehicles can be stacked away in automated high-rise garages and sent out to serve people on demand. Rather than stand idle for much of the time, they can be reassigned to serve other families once existing requests have been fulfilled. This way, a much smaller number of vehicles can serve far more families without imposing undue demand on parking spaces.

It sounds good, but when people are encouraged to treat cars as an aspirational item with even the parking spaces elevated to the status of a commodity, such a pragmatic and more environmentally friendly approach is hardly likely to gain traction.

Applause broke out during the Finance Secretary’s budget speech, when the motoring lobby discovered that Mr Tsang would not be raising the first registration tax. Did the Transport and Housing and Environment Bureaus provide any input?


Spinning energy options

March 21st, 2014 atam Posted in Climate change, Earth | 2 Comments »

Hey, if you’ve wondered how Hong Kong’s going to meet its climate change obligations, now you’ve got your answer.

And what a brilliant answer. The government is offering the public two choices for Hong Kong’s future energy supply. Option one: shift the bulk of carbon emissions to China by sourcing 50% of electricity from its southern power grid. We can go on wasting energy, guilt-free, as the emissions won’t be coming from within our boundary. Easy does it.

Option two: continue to rely on local supply, but increase the amount generated by natural gas from the current 22% to 60% while the amount contributed by coal power is reduced.

Which is cheaper? Neither, apparently. According to the Secretary for the Environment, both options would entail a 100% increase in the cost of electricity generation. It’s good he’s honest about that, as consumers must face the fact that electricity prices can only go up in the future.

But there’s something interesting about this consultation: climate change doesn’t appear to be a concern at all. The government’s “four major energy policy objectives” are safety, reliability, affordability and environmental performance, “as well as other important considerations including their implications for the future regulatory framework for the post-2018 electricity market, diversification and flexibility in meeting future demand”. Natural gas may be a less potent producer of greenhouse gases when compared with coal, but like coal it is a fossil fuel that does have a climate impact and will run out eventually.

Maybe it won’t run out for another decade or two, but as reserves dwindle prices will become higher and higher – just when we need more and more of it to power the air-conditioners as global warming takes hold. We are encouraging fancy technological fixes like occupancy sensors to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings, but everything we do increases rather than decreases the amount of electricity we use. Just think about the latest fashion accessory: the portable battery charger that people lug around because their smartphones are so energy-hungry they run out long before the day’s over.

One of the two energy options offered to the public is to be in place by 2023. How many degrees hotter will the planet be by 2023? And how much natural gas will be left to go by then?


The gambling capital of the world

March 19th, 2014 atam Posted in Culture, General | No Comments »

Think this is an article about Macau? Wrong.

You may think that, given the betting turnover at the casinos, Macau must qualify for that title hands down. You would be wrong though, because Hong Kong beats its neighbour without the need for any casinos at all.

Now you may wonder: am I referring to the amount Hong Kong people bet on horse races and football matches? Sorry, wrong again.

Hong Kong folks are in fact betting on stocks and properties, but of course the usual euphemism for that is ‘investing’. The ordinary people I know don’t look at it that way though; they are well aware that they are gambling – out of necessity.

This came to me when a friend, a former clerical worker forced to retire early some years ago, revealed that she actively plays the stock market in order to make ends meet. She doesn’t play the market because she is greedy, so she hasn’t been lured into any disastrous get-rich-quick funds. She is basically forced to play the stock market in order to beat inflation and put food on the table. The little money she was able to save as a clerk would never have lasted very long had she not taken a gamble with it by putting some in dividend-yielding shares and some in volatile stocks that can yield a quick profit if she gets the swing right.

So there you have it: our stock market is buoyant thanks to desperate Hong Kongers who have no other way to keep going. They’re not mired in poverty, but they have to risk losing their shirts to get by. The fruit seller just told me bananas have gone up by HK$3 per pound; with this kind of inflation, who can afford to rely on a little savings parked in the bank with next-to-no interest?

Another revelation came when another friend said she came by her leisurely life through property trading. She’s not greedy either, and is not speculating to make big bucks out of the property market while edging out the long queue of prospective homeowners. She’s just astutely trading her way up the property market, accumulating enough spare cash along the way to live a comfortable life without working. This has enabled her to spend time on charitable work, which surely is more rewarding than the false productivity that contributes to a nice GDP figure but not personal growth or health.

In a place where homes are affordable and there is fulfilling work on offer, people wouldn’t have to gamble as a way of life. And if this is the kind of economic activity that keeps Hong Kong ticking, do you think this city has all that bright a future?