Hong Kong's Congested Waters

Hong Kong is obsessed with land – land prices, land use, land reclamation, land ownership. But the recent tragic death of 39 people in a ferry sinking on Oct. 1 has been a reminder of the importance of the sea to a city semi-state which only exists because of its excellent harbor, well protected from storms, with deep waters and on the fringe of the Pearl River estuary giving access not just to Guangzhou but the major river systems of southern China.

For sure, the past decade has seen the relative decline of the importance of Hong Kong’s port as new container terminals have been opened in nearby Shenzhen where land is cheaper and access to the factories of the Pearl River delta is easier. Commerce in goods has also become less important for Hong Kong because of the growth of higher value-added financial services and related legal and accounting business as mainland firms have listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Fishing, once a significant industry, is no longer of importance – though it has not died as quickly as it should have done given the overfishing of waters allowed because of government unwillingness to take on vested interests.

Nonetheless relative decline in the container port’s importance is no excuse for the low i prominence that the government has attached to broader maritime issues, a neglect to which the ferry sinking has drawn attention. The container port business may be on a plateau and general cargo handling in decline, but other aspects of the world of the sea continue to grow in importance.

On the negative side, there is the burden of pollution caused by ships plying local waters. A recent report suggests that hundreds of premature deaths a year can be attributed to air pollution caused by ships, particularly in the crowded residential areas close to the container terminals. For years operators of major shipping lines have indicated a willingness if required to use low sulfur fuel in local waters and some taken part in a voluntary scheme. Switching is not a major problem for them as they are required to do so in many others ports.

But a spineless government has been unwilling to enforce low sulfur use because the worst polluters are not the large vessels but the coastal craft and local ferries. After the usual interminable delays, the government recently introduced an incentive in the form of lower port charges for ocean going vessels using low sulfur fuel But only compulsion would really address the problem. The claim that mainland authorities would have to follow suit to make a ban worthwhile has become an excuse for doing nothing.

More positively Hong Kong remains a major centre for ship financing and ship management and has benefited from the – until recently – boom in global shipping, and China traffic in particular. Its long-established commercial, legal and maritime infrastructure, tax system and ease of access make it a natural location for ship management – though also one in which Singapore offers strong competition. Despite its success, those in the industry complain that the government pays it little attention, immigration procedures can be an obstacle to crew management and lack of double taxation agreements with some major countries is an impediment.

On the waters themselves, the decline in the fishing fleet is being more than matched by the rapid growth of passenger and recreational vessels. Fast ferry traffic to nearby mainland destinations has risen to meet both local and tourist needs and there has also been an increase in residential development on Hong Kong’s outlying islands where housing is cheaper than in the urban areas.

Last but by no means least there has been a rapid rise in recreational vessels ranging from small sailing boats to jet-skis, pleasure junks, dive-boats and fancy speed boats and luxury motor yachts, the latter particularly by mainlanders in search of trophy vessels. Hong Kong’s waters, particularly the islands and bays on its eastern and southern sides have remarkable scenery, beautiful beaches, deep water, seafood restaurants and other attractions. It seems surprising that Hong Kong’s 7 million people do not make more use of their waters than is actually the case but activities are growing apace.

However government indolence has created an increasingly chaotic situation. There is a serious shortage of berths and moorings for pleasure vessels yet typhoon shelters – originally intended mainly fishing boats are underused – a large one on Hei Ling island lies almost completely unused. A well-located cargo handling basin at a strategic point on Hong Kong island remains an underused eyesore. Instead of accepting that Hong Kong should be a base for luxury yachts and a location for big-boat sailing events lack of coordination among government departments has impeded development.

Meanwhile the government is constructing a giant cruise ship terminal at the old Kai Tak airport site despite obvious lack of commercial justification and taking up key harbor-side space which could have had multiple maritime uses. The billions of dollars of implied subsidy for this terminal contrast with the territory’s much praised Maritime Museum which was founded and still relies mainly on private sector donations.

The increase in traffic has not been met with stricter policing of the waters. Indeed, quite the opposite. For years there has been no increase in the number of traffic separation schemes which reduce collision risk. At the same time, say seasoned observers, there has been a large increase in the numbers of speedboats and other recreational vessels which routinely ignore the international collision avoidance rules and local speed limits and other restrictions.

Jet-skis are a particular hazard to swimmers and divers. Despite their high speeds, they are exempt from rules requiring a license for operators of boats with engines. The marine police seem particularly reluctant to penalize operators of glamorous speed craft and high speed ferries may need to be confined to better defined paths.

A committee of inquiry into the ferry disaster will report in about six months and will doubtless make suggestions for improving safety. But it remains to be seen whether the government can get beyond the question of the immediate causes of the disaster to the broader issues affecting the whole maritime arena.