On Tuesday, a 48-year-old Indonesian domestic helper was killed by a falling tree branch as she was walking along a road in Sau Mau Ping in Kwun Tong district early in the morning.
The tragic accident marks an indictment of the government’s tree management and safety policy, and calls into question whether the existing Tree Management Office (TMO) is really fulfilling its intended role and doing its job properly.
Back in 2008, the government set up the TMO following a deadly tree collapse accident in Stanley that killed a 19-year-old girl.
However, since then the issue of tree safety in the city has seen little improvement. Over the past 10 years, deadly tree collapses or falling branches have claimed five lives, including the latest one this week.
According to the current arrangement, the TMO is charged with formulating guidelines on tree management, maintaining the condition of trees across Hong Kong and carrying out risk assessments on a regular basis.
The TMO is also responsible for coordinating the efforts of the tree management work among the various government departments in maintaining the trees and making sure that they are safe to pedestrians.
Unfortunately, as lawmaker Tanya Chan Suk-chong of the Civic Party has pointed out, the TMO is in reality a “toothless tiger”, because all it can do is to issue orders to government departments urging them to work more aggressively on tree safety.
TMO doesn’t have the power to ensure that its orders are being strictly and properly enforced by the government departments, Chan noted.
In other words, while the TMO can formulate guidelines and issue orders on tree safety, it is entirely up to the various government departments themselves to decide whether or not to enforce the TMO’s orders.
Furthermore, in recent years it has increasingly become a common practice for most government departments to rely on outsourced contractors to carry out tree safety inspections.
The service quality of the outsourced contractors varies a lot. And the problem is further compounded by the fact that the contractors aren’t always subject to effective government oversight.
The latest accident is a telling reminder of the serious issues plaguing the management of trees in the city.
To address the situation, Chan has urged the government to introduce a tree management act as well as set up a single supervisory body that has both the power and duty to oversee tree safety across Hong Kong.
In our opinion, the accident in Sau Mau Ping may have proven Chan correct in the assertion that the current mechanism on ensuring tree safety has come up short.
As such, we agree that the administration should consider allowing the TMO greater power so that it can take command of the overall task of tree management and inspection and eliminate buck-passing as well as foot-dragging on this critical issue among different government departments.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 23
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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