For many Shenzhen residents who live near the border, Hong Kong no longer means “Fragrant Harbor” but the opposite.
First-time mainland visitors to Hong Kong, when they pass through the border checkpoints, are usually shocked by the sight of large swaths of vacant plots along the southern bank of the Shenzhen River, a stark contrast to the skyscraper-dotted, circuit board-like streets on the other side of the narrow stream.
The northernmost part of Hong Kong is rural and derelict.
What makes the sight even more offensive is the foul odor emanating from some parts of the area, which hosts two of Hong Kong’s landfills.
During a recent visit to Shenzhen’s southwestern Shekou district, which is near the Shenzhen Bay border checkpoint, this writer felt sympathy for those who had been lured into buying pricey waterfront homes in the area.
The district is liveable with its well-planned transport facilities and lush greenery, but only if you’re the type who could stand rancid odors.
The West New Territories Landfill in northwestern Tuen Mun contains 61 million cubic meters of garbage that provides an unending barrage of atrocities to the olfactory system, especially during summer. Shekou is no more than five kilometers away.
Shenzhen’s Liantang district is around three kilometers north of the North East New Territories Landfill in northern Sheung Shui, which has a capacity of 35 million cubic meters.
How Hong Kong disposes of its waste is fouling up its relations with Shenzhen. In fact, the problem prompted Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to issue a verbal apology to Shenzhen authorities at a joint work conference on border management two years ago.
But no action followed Lam’s statement of remorse. The Environmental Protection Department insists the two border landfills were built in conformity with the highest hygiene standards and the HKSAR government has no obligation to take into consideration the environmental impact outside the territory.
Worse still, the size of the Tuen Mun landfill will be doubled to 200 hectares as Hong Kong grapples with increasing loads of trash. Existing landfills will be exhausted far earlier than expected when people have become more resistant to having new waste facilities near their neighborhoods.
Since January this year, the South East New Territories Landfill in Tseung Kwan O has stopped receiving waste other than construction debris, providing relief to residents there who have long been complaining about the garbage.
This means the two landfills near Shenzhen will have to absorb the new loads of solid waste.
The irony is that, after residential projects in Tin Shui Wai were finished, the new town building momentum came to an abrupt halt in the mid-1990s. Thus, the two landfills, which opened roughly at the same time, were the only major developments initiated by the government in northern New Territories in the following decades.
Building and expanding the landfills near the border turned out to be among the very few infrastructure programs that the public wouldn’t oppose thanks to the Hongkongers’ “not in my back yard” mindset.
For locals, the two sites are in the “wilderness” of the border area, which, in the first place, is supposed to serve as the territory’s buffer against the mainland.
Hong Kong still maintains the 1,350-hectare Frontier Closed Area with entry and development restrictions imposed since the 1960s.
Back then, the choice of the area to accommodate obnoxious facilities made sense when Shenzhen was nothing more than a sleepy town.
But now that Shenzhen has become a bustling metropolis and Hong Kong’s garbage continues to grow, it has been proposed that incinerators be established on the outlying islands.
However, funding has been stalled amid vigorous opposition from residents of Cheung Chau.
And even if the project receives the go-ahead, it will take years before the new facility starts operating.
Thus, expansion of the two landfills still appears to be the most feasible solution.
Surely, Hong Kong and Shenzhen are doing their best to prevent the stinky problem from blowing up, and so far, top officials from the other side remain courteous and cordial after Lam paid lip service to their concerns.
It’s interesting to see that while Hong Kong appears to be always at the receiving end of political tensions with Beijing, the landfill issue is one of the few occasions in which Hong Kong is the source of grievance to the other.
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