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LCQ5: Sandstorm in Northern China

     Following is a question by Hon Cyd Ho Sau-lan and a reply by the Secretary for the Environment, Mr Edward Yau, in the Legislative Council today (May 5):


     It was reported that Hong Kong being affected by the sandstorm in Northern China, exceptionally high air pollution index readings had been recorded continuously for more than 10 hours from the evening of March 21 to the morning of March 22 by the air quality monitoring stations set up by the Environmental Protection Department ("EPD"), and in response to the situation, the authorities had activated the emergency mechanism and taken measures. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether the Hong Kong authorities and the mainland authorities had mutually notified each other of the phenomenon when the sandstorm swept through Northern China on March 20; if so, of the time and details of notification;

(b) of the names of the bureaux or government departments participated in the discussions on the emergency mechanism held between March 21 and 22, as well as details of the specific measures which they decided at that time to take; and

(c) whether the Inter-departmental Working Group on Climate Change ("IWGCC") led by EPD was involved in addressing the problems caused by the sandstorm, and whether IWGCC will conduct follow-up studies on the relation between sandstorms and climate change, the contingency measures Hong Kong should take and the procedure for activating these measures; if it will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?



     Regarding part (a) and part (b) of the question, a sandstorm refers to the meteorological phenomenon under which a strong wind sweeps up large quantities of sand and soil particles from the ground, clouding the air and reducing visibility drastically. Due to the expanse of deserts in northwest China and Mongolia, which provide an abundant supply of sand and dust, sandstorms will break out under strong surface wind and vertically unstable meteorological conditions.

     Sandstorms in northern China usually occur between late winter and spring, with frequency peaking from March to May. Dust plumes in northern China can be carried eastward by airstream to places such as Japan, Korea and the North Pacific. As a sandstorm moves along, sand particles will settle progressively and thus the particulate concentration will drop progressively. Being thousands of kilometres away from the deserts in the north, Hong Kong is very unlikely to experience the adverse condition as the north does during a sandstorm. However after the incident on March 21 we cannot exclude such possibility. In fact, severe sandstorms, which hit northern China in past years, had no significant impact on the air quality in Hong Kong. The highest air pollution index (API) attributable to sandstorms in northern China ever recorded in Hong Kong in the past was 109 in 2001. The impacts of the dust plume that caused the local API to shoot up to 500 in mid-March this year were unprecedented.

     We have been closely monitoring the air quality changes in Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta (PRD) region via the air quality monitoring networks. As a result, when the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) detected an unusual upward trend of ambient particulate concentration in Hong Kong in the evening on March 21, it immediately contacted the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) for the weather conditions in Hong Kong and the neighbouring regions. The two departments gathered and analysed in detail a host of meteorological and air quality data in Hong Kong and its peripheral regions, including reports on dust plumes and air quality, and the paths and speeds of airstreams over the Mainland and Taiwan. The EPD also called the environmental monitoring authorities of Guangdong Province for the situation in the PRD. After consolidating and analysing the relevant data, the EPD confirmed that dust plumes were moving southward from northern China and affecting Hong Kong.

     Upon confirmation of Hong Kong being affected by the dust plumes from the Mainland, the Environment Bureau (ENB) issued a press release to all the media through the Information Services Department (ISD) at around mid-night on March 22, which is only a few hours after we noticed the situation. The electronic media including television and radio immediately reported the news to the public. We also informed the Education Bureau (EDB) and arranged a briefing about the incident by EPD staff through the electronic media in the morning. To monitor the pollution level and co-ordinate contingency actions more effectively, the ENB held an inter-departmental meeting with relevant departments in the morning on March 22. Relevant policy bureaux and departments joined me to meet the media at noon to update the public promptly on the latest pollution level and advise them on the appropriate measures to take.

     The ENB was responsible for co-ordinating notification and contingency measures, and it was assisted by various government departments or organisations, including the Food and Health Bureau, EDB, EPD, Department of Health (DH), HKO, Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), Labour Department (LD), ISD and Hospital Authority (HA). Specific measures adopted by the relevant government departments or organisations on that day are as follows-

i. To update the public on the latest information, the EPD and HKO jointly analysed and closely monitored the latest meteorological data and air pollution level in Hong Kong and its peripheral regions on that day. Through satellite pictures and the international network of meteorological data, the HKO closely monitored the dust plumes in the Mainland and Taiwan. The EPD also monitored the data on air quality in the Mainland, the PRD and Taiwan.

ii. The EDB alerted schools to adopt appropriate measures according to the guidelines on the cancellation of sports activities and sports day through the electronic media before 7 am on March 22. The guidelines were faxed to schools for their reference afterwards.

iii. The EPD alerted the public to the high API and to consider reducing physical exertion, taking into account their health conditions. The LCSD posted notices at its recreation and sports venues offering the same advice on March 22.

iv. The HA closely monitored cases at public hospitals, clinics and accident and emergency departments on March 22 so as to arrange for staff deployment as necessary. Moreover, the DH notified registered western medical practitioners and Chinese medicine practitioners of the air pollution level and called on them to advise the public and patients to take appropriate measures.

v. As for mitigation measures, the EPD suspended the operation of the incinerator of the Chemical Waste Treatment Centre on March 22. It also requested the power companies to increase the use of natural gas for power generation to reduce emissions.

vi. In addition to the release of information through various means as mentioned above, the EPD issued another press release in the evening on March 22. It updated the public on the air quality situation and alerted them to the high API and to consider reducing physical exertion taking account of their health conditions. In the press release, the LD also advised outdoor workers, especially those with existing heart or respiratory illnesses, to consult their medical doctors if they were in doubt of their health conditions. They should inform their employers of their doctors' advice and work out suitable arrangements with their employers.

     As for part (c) of the question, this is the first time Hong Kong has come under the severe influence of a sandstorm from northern China. The incident further reminds us of the interactive impact of global environmental issues such as desertification and climate change on different regions. Hong Kong cannot stay aloof. Instead, it has to enhance regional co-operation to tackle environmental issues. The EPD will liaise closely with the relevant departments on the Inter-departmental Working Group on Climate Change to prepare for climate change.

     Following the incident, HKO and the EPD have stepped up their co-operation in closely monitoring daily meteorological and air quality data relating to dust plumes locally and in our peripheral regions, including the Mainland, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. We will inform the public as soon as there are signs that dust from the Mainland will likely affect Hong Kong. Moreover, the internal notification mechanism of the Administration will be further improved to facilitate prompt deployment of resources and liaison with other organisations and bodies for appropriate measures. Such measures include advising the public through the media and suitable channels to reduce physical exertion taking account of their health conditions, the medical authorities keeping in view any increase in the number of patients so as to deploy more staff to clinics when necessary, and schools suspending their sports day.

Ends/Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Issued at HKT 17:16


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