While dripping air-con units annoy passers-by and pose health risks, the authorities seldom take effective action against those responsible
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 3:26am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 3:35am
Nathan Road has long been a tourist Mecca. Thousands of visitors and local residents walk along the famed "Golden Mile" every day to enjoy the shopping and soak up Kowloon's bustling atmosphere.
But they also soak up something they haven't bargained for - water dripping unchecked from the countless faulty air conditioners above their heads.
"This looks like something from the dark ages or a third-world village somewhere," said Mary Mulvihill, standing at a corner of Tsim Sha Tsui and gesturing at a puddle of water formed by a leaking air con on a scorching summer day. Mulvihill, originally from Ireland, has lived in the area for more than 20 years during which she has fought an endless campaign, all by herself, against this problem.
"On one side the tourists have the dripping air conditioners and when they escape from all the dripping air cons they fall over the buckets and everything on the street," she said. "This is absolutely appalling."
Aside from soiling the streets and causing a constant nuisance, these faulty cooling machines also pose a public health risk. The pools of water they generate can play host to bacteria and fungi, and lead to the spread of legionnaires' disease, according to health professionals.
Watch: A woman's 20-year crusade against Hong Kong's dripping air-cons
"People with compromised immunity like elderly patients are most likely to be affected" said Dr Leung Chi-chiu, a specialist in respiratory medicine. "Children may also be vulnerable."
Antigens growing in the water can also cause allergic reactions, a health risk that is further exacerbated by poor air quality in a built-up city in which shoulder-to-shoulder buildings create a wall effect that traps pollutants and reduces airflow.
The high-rise design of Hong Kong intensifies the problem, with hundreds of defective air conditioners stacked above one another for 30 or 40 floors, simultaneously dripping to produce what can look like rainfall.
Leaking air cons are not a problem unique to Kowloon. They are a nuisance throughout a city in which over-dependence on indoor cooling systems and poorly regulated controls over malfunctioning air cons make for wet streets on rainless days.
"Dripping air conditioners are a unique Hong Kong phenomenon," said Yau Tsim Mong district councillor Chan Wai-keung. "The design of high-rise buildings makes the problem much worse. It is also very costly to fix the old, dripping air cons."
Chan feels the government does not treat the problem as seriously as it should. "I receive dozens of complaints about dripping air cons each year," he said, adding that he forwards these complaints to the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department - the government branch that has pledged to keep the problem in check. "Only one third of these problems [was] finally resolved through the" department, he said.
By any measure the official statistics from the government are not encouraging. Thousands of complaints are made every year by annoyed citizens, but only a fraction of the owners responsible are prosecuted.
"Usually the [Department] is not effective in dealing with the complaints about dripping air cons," said Chan. He pointed out that the law was seldom enforced to fine owners. And most importantly, an inspector could walk under a leaking air con and not do anything about it because no one had filed a complaint.
This seems to be the crux of the problem - the department acts mostly on complaints, and even when it does act, the onus is on the complainant to follow up and even guide inspectors to the exact location.
The Post received a taste of this when alerting the department to black spots across Hong Kong. We filed complaints about 10 spots where the law was openly flouted and the pavements were wet with dripping air cons, but the department issued a nuisance notice to only one of them.
Air cons at the remaining nine black spots continued to drip water onto pedestrians below, but the department's inspectors claimed they could not find them.
The Post was also given a phone number of the inspector responsible for each of the 10 complaints we made, which is standard practice, but contacting them turned out to be another issue as none of them answered repeated calls.
The lack of response explains why the problem has continued unchecked in so many locations across Hong Kong.
One spot thePost identified involved a dripping air con on a building in Wellington Street in Central. The building is actually one of 105 complexes included in a scheme for private housing estates, launched in 2005, to manage the problem of leaking air cons. Each block is supposed to have one party responsible for making sure everyone else in the building keeps their air cons drip-free.
A few days after lodging the complaint, we received a phone call from a property management agent stating that the offending air con could not be found, but asking that we, as the complainants, return to the address and pinpoint exactly where we saw the leakage.
Ironically, the department referred to the same scheme when the Post asked what it had been doing over the years to fix this long-running problem.
"Since the problem of dripping air conditioners could be resolved, in most cases, through the cooperation among neighbours and simple repair works, [the department] has introduced a scheme that encourages 'Participation by Property Management Agents'," the department said in a written statement.
The statement was a copy-and-paste from a press release from 2013 after the issue was raised in the Legislative Council.
Officially, the department says all complaints it receives are dealt with and resolved. It claimed that it conducts site inspections and investigations "within six working days upon receipt of a complaint to identify the source of the nuisance."
When a complaint is made - usually by a member of the public through the hotline 1823 - department inspectors are supposed to conduct an inspection and issue a nuisance notice to the flat owner or occupier. If convicted, the fine for failing to rectify the problem can be up to HK$10,000.
In their defence, department officers also are confronted with complications when approaching owners of flats or businesses as they cannot enter someone's home or office without first securing a warrant.
The department fielded the most public complaints of any in the government, according to an Audit Commission investigation in 2012 into how it manages public enquiries.
The audit report notes that problems such as an inability to act in a timely manner or appropriately address repeat service complaints come down to staffing and systemic issues. Monitoring and following up on cases are not the responsibility of complaints-handling staff.
The report also noted inconsistencies in how complaints are recorded across districts, suggesting that some district officers fail to record complaints and are not held accountable when shirking this responsibility.
The department "has all along been vigilant about the nuisance caused by water dripping from air conditioners," Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man declared when asked about leaking air cons in July 2013. The department copied and pasted the same answer in its recent correspondence with thePost when asked why the problem continued unabated.
"The departments actually have the powers to work immediately, but of course they don't do it … the taxpayers are doing all the hard work themselves," said Mulvihill, who spends hours each day following up her complaints and canvassing politicians to take a more proactive role in addressing Hong Kong's day-to-day nuisances. "The administration is doing nothing to improve the whole appearance of the city."
She contrasted Nathan Road, which is under the authority of government departments, with Canton Road, which private organisations are charged with maintaining.
"The difference between the two of them is like the difference between Fifth Avenue and a backstreet in a third-world village," she said.
Hong Kong resident fights uphill campaign to stop dripping water
Trying to get the government to do something about dripping air conditioners can be an incredibly frustrating and thankless task. For lone crusader Mary Mulvihill, it's almost a full time job.
"It takes hours," says the Tsim Sha Tsui resident who has been lodging complaints about dripping air conditioners for the last two decades. Some puddle-producing machines have been on her radar for 15 years, and they're still dripping unchecked.
It's frustrating, but this feisty Irishwoman is as dogged as a bloodhound.
"You have to go around, sometimes take photographs of the location, email, then you get the kind of 'fob off' response," Mulvihill explains. "And then you have to follow up on it and follow up on it again and go back again and look at the situation if it has improved or not, and if it hasn't improved you have to start all over again."
She will complain about defective air cons anywhere at any time, but prefers to focus on black spots: bustling bus stops, narrow streets where skirting the droplets is impossible. To avoid the splashes, pedestrians are forced out onto the roads where vehicles speed past dangerously close.
"This is totally unacceptable, particularly as [Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying] has said that they will not tolerate illegal activities. These illegal activities have been tolerated for far too many years," she says.
The machines leaking above an A21 bus stop in Tsim Sha Tsui that brings in suitcase-laden tourists from the airport are a particular source of exasperation to Mulvihill.
"I have made multiple complaints about this, and according to the FEHD [Food and Environmental Hygiene Department], all the perpetrators have been warned many times before. My question is: why are they not prosecuted?"
She warns that the dripping gives a really bad first impression to visitors. And she speaks from experience, having worked in tourism and urban development across three continents.
Hailing from a small Irish town to which she has not returned since 1969, Mulvihill keeps herself afloat with various odd marketing jobs which allows her the flexibility and time needed to canvas relentlessly for a cleaner and more efficient Hong Kong.
She considers it her civic duty to compel fellow Hongkongers to ensure their city's streets look clean and orderly, however many emails or phone calls to officials it takes or strangers she makes uncomfortable with her unabashed finger-wagging.
Besides dripping air conditioners, Mulvihill's list of grievances includes but is not limited to: idling engines, illegal banners, littering, the unenforced smoking ban, jaywalking, vehicular speeding and noise pollution.
She keeps a folder stacked with letters to various government departments dating back two decades, and a string of email accounts devoted to her various crusades.
She laments that Kowloon has grown less and less appealing since she first arrived.
"We have all these tourists come in. We've had no money spent on local facilities, on landscaping, on providing seating, providing water fountains - there's no public toilets, and problems like dripping air cons, overflowing dustbins and idling engines that are not addressed."
Mulvihill blames the administration first, but also believes citizens should push for a more pleasant living environment.
"Every society has its problems and it's up to the people living there who take it upon themselves to live there and want to stay there to do something about the problems," she says.
"What's lacking in this city is pride. Pride in the city, pride in the appearance of the city, pride in how others perceive us."