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Hong Kong's pollution clouds its future

Story Highlights

• "Factory of the World" is what Hong Kong government calls Pearl River Delta
• Hong Kong's government has launched "Action Blue Sky" campaign
• Hong Kong's pollution compounded by geography, tall buildings
• Business survey: Pollution tops concerns; shows HK's attractiveness dropping
By Elizabeth Yuan
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- It was the skyline that he couldn't see that caused Joe DiSorbo to change his mind about moving from Singapore to Hong Kong.

In November 2005, he was in the city looking for a place where he was to move his family the following March. Standing by the Star Ferry on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour, he recalled looking "across at what should be the Hong Kong skyline, and you can't even make out the buildings."

And then he crossed over to the Hong Kong side and went up to The Peak. "I looked down, and it was all polluted."

What he saw reinforced what he'd already heard about anecdotally -- accounts by other expatriates that children were having breathing problems and that families were going back home.

DiSorbo, who has two young children, had already committed to opening a Hong Kong office of the e-commerce logistics company that he founded, Webgistix Corporation. His wife had already given her company notice.

"I flew home and basically said, 'We're not moving,'" he said.

DiSorbo's fateful weekend came during what the Hong Kong Observatory says is the 10th worst month on record for reduced visibility. The Observatory has kept those records since 1968.

Ten years after the handover, blue skies have become enough of a rarity that when they happened over a four-day period in June, the South China Morning Post ran a picture of it on the front page. The caption: "Forgotten what Hong Kong is like without smog?"

Hong Kong's government says it's recognized the problem and last year launched the "Action Blue Sky" campaign to induce everyone, from the public to corporations, to adopt green measures, conserve energy, and reduce air pollution.

'Street canyon' hurts Hong Kong, think tank says

Contributing to the problem is Hong Kong's location in southern China's Greater Pearl River Delta region, home to at least 57,500 factories and 99 million people, according to the Federation of Hong Kong Industries.

"Factory of the World" trumpets the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government, in referring to the Pearl River Delta on a Web site dedicated to branding Hong Kong as "Asia's world city."

The region is an economic powerhouse, generating exports of $519 billion in 2005, according to the government - rivaling those of entire Asian countries. In turn, half of Hong Kong's GDP stems from the producer services sector, which supports manufacturers' operations in the Pearl River Delta, according to the Federation of Hong Kong Industries report.

Added to the factories and the power plants are more than 225,000 vessels that arrive in Hong Kong's port, one of the world's busiest, the think tank Civic Exchange points out. The Hong Kong Marine Department put last year's figure at more than 230,000. Throw in Hong Kong's tall buildings and narrow roads, and a "street canyon effect" forms that traps air pollutants and mixes with local emissions from vehicles on the streets, according to Civic Exchange.

Rapid urbanization around the region has led to a land-sea breeze system that further traps the pollutants, according to both the Hong Kong Observatory and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Business survey at odds with government

Local leaders appear to be looking at the pollution issue through a different lens than environmental watchdogs.

In an interview with CNN's Anjali Rao on "Talk Asia" in March, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Donald Tsang said, "The sky here now is a lot brighter than it was in 1997. Now, that's a fact. The air now in terms of quality is much better than it was in 1997. It is not perfect."

Hong Kong's outlook, as far as investment is concerned, is "not likely to change," Tsang said. "People are not moving elsewhere." In a subsequent interview with the Financial Times newspaper, Tsang said Hong Kong, which now has 7 million people, can accommodate another 3 million comfortably.

A survey carried out last August by ACNielsen on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong painted a different outlook. The results:

  • 79 percent of respondents saw Hong Kong's level of attractiveness to foreign investors drop in the future, given the current trend in the environment, versus 4 percent who saw an increase and 18 percent who saw no change;
  • 55 percent knew of professionals declining to come to Hong Kong, while 78 percent knew of those who were thinking of leaving, because of the quality of the environment;
  • 59 percent of respondents said their company was likely to invest money elsewhere instead of Hong Kong, if the current pollution trend keeps up;
  • 95 percent of respondents worried about the long-term effects of the air quality on their health as well as on their children's health. The sponsors of the study, which had a margin of error of 3.9 percent, included Time Warner, parent company of
  • Concern over the impact of air quality on business in Hong Kong led the British Chamber of Commerce to form an environment committee in April 2005. "We are at a position where there are decisions being made by multinational and national businesses in terms of where they should locate their regional headquarters for Asia," said chair Timothy Peirson-Smith, managing director of Executive Counsel. "For an executive who is being relocated from North America or Europe with a family, the air quality issue is a factor in their decision."

    "Cautious optimism" was the overall sentiment on the British Chamber of Commerce's business confidence survey last year, with 99 percent of its members surveyed reporting dissatisfaction with the air quality.

    Expatriates leave

    In recent months, Edo de Waart, chief conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, became one of the most high-profile residents to cite pollution as the reason for packing up. He is moving his family to his wife's hometown in the U.S. state of Wisconsin and will stay in Hong Kong for a minimum of 17-18 weeks in keeping with his maestro duties, the orchestra confirmed.

    Others leaving because of the pollution include Gary Mandy, an adventure racer, and his family. His daughter had chest, throat and breathing issues before she was 16 months old, and she has been "perfectly healthy" since their recent move to the United States, he said in an e-mail. Mandy's wife, Gia, is a former member of the U.S. National Triathlete team and is focused on running and qualifying for the Olympics. "By staying in Hong Kong, those goals were not achievable," he wrote.

    Meanwhile, Gordon Oldham -- a resident of Hong Kong for 28 years and an ultramarathoner -- is taking the legal route. The 55-year-old lawyer formed the Clean Air Foundation, which filed for a Judicial Review in March that argued that the Hong Kong government's policies on air quality are in breach of the Basic Law and international human rights law. The group wants to get its case before the court and will find if it is successful on July 11.

    From January through March of this year, 11 out of 12 general air quality monitoring stations of Hong Kong's Environmental Protection Department recorded high air pollution levels for one out of every two hours. In the three roadside stations located at Hong Kong's most trafficked areas -- Causeway Bay, Central and Mong Kok -- high and very high levels of pollution were recorded 92 percent of that time, according to the department's Web site.

    Those pollution levels are based on Hong Kong's Air Quality Objectives that were established in 1987.

    The government is reviewing those standards with the aim of finalizing new Air Quality Objectives and a long-term air quality strategy by 2009 -- something critics say is taking too long. In recent years, the government has passed measures to reduce emissions from power plants, tightened vehicle emissions standards, and embarked on a joint management plan with the Guangdong provincial government.

    For Daiming Yung, who is registering voters in Causeway Bay twice a week between now and mid-July, the air is what he thinks about most while standing outside for eight hours. But he said it's not just the emissions from all the traffic that plies one of Hong Kong's busiest junctions.

    "I think the problem is the smoking," he said.


    Hong Kong's skyline as seen from the Kowloon side near the Star Ferry pier in the late afternoon.



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