On the wind

Hong Kong is blowing
hot air over disastrous air pollution

Photo by Derrick Chang

hkharbourThe Hong Kong
government has become so desperate in its attempts to deflect blame
for the appalling air quality prevailing in the territory that its
meteorological department has taken to making disingenuous statements
about the recent history of the weather.

Over three days,
October 5-7, Hong Kong was enveloped in a thick blanket of smog that
drove the Air Pollution Index to well over 100 in some areas, a level
which at which people with heart and other health problems are
advised not to go out or take exercise. The index hit that unsavory
mark in the key tourist area of Causeway Bay and congested Mongkok.
It was barely possible to see across Hong Kong harbor, itself a major
tourist attraction. While the level of pollution may have been barely
noticed by the half million mainland tourists visiting over the
Golden Week holiday — it is the norm in many Chinese cities —
it is an increasing health hazard for Hong Kong residents with higher
expectations, not least the foreign business community for whom
pollution is now a major deterrent to residency here.

But rather than see the
situation as a wake-up call, the government, both in its own press
releases and through bulletins on the weather website of the Hong
Kong Observatory, blamed the sorry state of affairs on “light
winds.” This was clearly contradicted by other information on
the website, particularly that for marine and aviation traffic. It
was particularly disappointing from a government department which
provides large amounts of useful weather information.

At no time during the
three days was there ever a marine or airport forecast of anything
less than Force 3, and for much of the time Force 4 was both forecast
and recorded at weather stations in Hong Kong waters and at the
airport. Forces 3 to 4 are winds in the range of 7 to 16 knots, known
in the common meteorological parlance used in official forecasts and
bulletins as “moderate.” An Observatory spokesperson was
quoted saying that because of “light winds… suspended
particles lingered in the air.” (The official definition of
“light wind” is 1-6 knots). Yet its own website was
recording much higher wind levels.

As many people taking
part in sailing races in Hong Kong harbor on the afternoon of October
5 could testify, including this correspondent, there was a steady
west wind which was never less than 8 knots, averaged around 11 knots
and sometimes gusted to at least 16. Yet the government was blaming
the harbor smog on “light” winds.

Just one look at the
weather map could also have shown that “light” winds were
anyway improbable given that Hong Kong was under the influence of
Typhoon Krosa, which battered northern Taiwan and then the coast of
Zhejiang over the weekend.

The actual wind speed
for October 5-7 was about average for the time of year. The only
unusual aspect was that because of Krosa the wind was westerly rather
than the northeasterly which normally prevails from around
late-September to March. A westerly might be blamed for bringing more
pollution from the Pearl River Delta than a northeasterly does. But
that is another story.

The government may
claim that winds in many parts of Hong Kong were “light”.
But many areas almost always have light winds. One reason is the
territory’s topography of hillsides rising 1,000 feet and more,
with peaks over 3,000 feet. However, as important is the multiplicity
of close-packed 40-storey curtain-wall buildings so beloved by the
government’s closest allies, the big property developers. Any
definition of “weather” by the Observatory must relate to
its natural state rather than how it is altered by Hong Kong’s
buildings.

In other words, the
forecasts and reports given to marine and aviation users were
accurate, but the subsequent “light wind” descriptions
provided to the public were contrived to fool the people and shift
blame away from a government so beholden to vested interests that it
cannot take the tough action needed to raise air quality standards.
In the world of Chief Executive Donald Tsang and the bureaucracy he
oversees developers, power companies and transport operators trump
public health concerns. Draw your own conclusions about what this
says about Hong Kong’s future as a “world city”.

Many in the financial
services industries who have a choice of location are voting with
their feet, preferring to trade freedom of speech for the cleaner air
of Singapore. Foreign chambers of commerce warnings about the
situation go unheeded by a government which likes to compare Hong
Kong to other Chinese cities rather than the international ones with
which it is supposed to be competing for World City status.

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