24 October 2016
Secretary for Education Eddie Ng (inset) is not offering help to kindergarten campuses affected by the water contamination problem. Photo: HKEJ
Secretary for Education Eddie Ng (inset) is not offering help to kindergarten campuses affected by the water contamination problem. Photo: HKEJ

Water contamination saga reveals government insensitivity

Students may not be particularly excited about the start of the new schoolyear this coming Tuesday, and it’s not just because it signals the end of the summer holiday. 

Many parents are concerned about news reports that the lead-contaminated water saga has spread to several schools.

Of course, their children can always bring their own water supply to school, but what parents are concerned about is the attitude of government officials toward the crisis.

Since the water contamination issue was revealed in July, the government has acted fast to install temporary water supplies and provide water filters in affected public housing estates.

But these officials don’t seem to care at all that the problem has now reached school campuses.

After news broke out a week ago that lead contamination has spread to several schools, the government only responded to issue on Thursday.

The Secretary for Education Eddie Ng Hak-kim said water filters will be installed in public schools built in 2005 or later.

However, the government is not offering any help to kindergarten campuses that may be also be affected by contaminated water.

It refused to provide funds for the laboratory testing of water samples or installation of filtration systems in these schools.

But it did suggest that the schools themselves carry out these measures to protect the health of their students.

Ng also said there is no urgent need to install water filters on kindergarten campuses as kids stay there for only a few hours each day.

It’s no surprise that Ng has the lowest popularity rating among cabinet officials in the Leung Chun-ying administration.

Previously, his underperformance in the service gave people the impression that he didn’t have the skills to be a government official.

But in view of the water contamination issue, people think he is also insensitive to the needs of parents, teachers and students.

Is the health of kindergarten pupils not that important to the government?

In fact, the government should give priority to the kindergarten campuses because the schoolchildren are more susceptible to diseases resulting from the water supply contamination.

Otherwise, there is no reason for the government to keep track of the development of babies and children in the affected public housing estates.

Last week, when St Thomas Primary School in Sham Shui Po announced that laboratory tests showed excessive lead content in its water supply, Ng offered no immediate help to the school.

Instead he said: “All local school teachers should teach the correct attitude on drinking water. The school should educate students not to drink unboiled water.”

Such a response has drawn anger from parents. Is the government telling them that if anything bad happens to their children, it is their responsibility? How about the government? What is it doing to protect these children inside school campuses?

The education minister also suggested that students bring their own water rather than drink from water fountains on the campus.

His remarks only showed that the government lacks a comprehensive plan to deal with the crisis.

Not only has the government failed to give confidence to the public, it has also passed on its responsibility of dealing with the water contamination issue to the school administrators, parents and students.

School administrators themselves need to do more to ease the worries of parents.

One example is the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui. The city’s Anglican Church, which is one of the largest school sponsoring bodies with more than 100 schools in the territory, wants individual schools to deal with the issue on their own. 

It said that it is a school-based issue, and therefore, it is not suitable for the Church to intervene in each school’s affairs.

Timothy Ha Wing-ho, Sheng Kung Hui’s education adviser, on Thursday remarked that the Church has no role in dealing with the lead contamination issue.

He noted that the school buildings affected by the problem were built by the government and operated by school sponsoring bodies like Sheng Kung Hui.

As such, the Church will leave to the school managers and principals to decide whether to install water filters on their campuses.

But not all school sponsoring bodies passed on the issue to individual schools.

The Catholic Church, for example, announced that it will install water filters in the kitchens of all the 17 kindergartens under its jurisdiction, noting that the health of schoolchildren are at stake.

The water contamination issue is testing the ability of the government as well as the school sponsoring bodies in crisis management.

The education minister should fight for additional resources to be able to install water filters in all public schools as well as kindergartens across the city, and not just select school buildings built after 2005 for such assistance.

The government owes it not just to the parents but to the children who are Hong Kong’s hope for a brighter future.

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EJ Insight writer

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