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14/10/2015-LCQ8: Handling of complaints about water seepage in buildings

    Following is a question by the Hon Paul Tse and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (October 14, 2015):

Question:

     In the past several years, I have incessantly received complaints about the handling of water seepage in buildings by the Joint Office (JO) of the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and the Buildings Department (BD). It is learnt that at a seminar held in East Kowloon last month, an official of JO said that in most cases, it was difficult to ascertain the causes of water seepage and the time needed for concluding an investigation, the success rate of colour water tests in identifying the sources of water seepage was just about 50 per cent, and the use of infrared cameras for identifying the sources of water seepage had yet to be formally put into use after years of trials conducted by JO. Residents attending the seminar were dissatisfied with such remarks given by the official concerned. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) of the current staff establishment and expenditure of JO;

(2) of the respective numbers of (i) complaints about water seepage in buildings received, (ii) cases in which investigations were concluded, and (iii) cases in which the sources of water seepage were ascertained, by JO since April 1 this year, and among those cases in which investigations were concluded, of the average investigation time and expenditure involved in each case;

(3) of the number of complaints from residents of the Kwun Tong and Wong Tai Sin districts about water seepage in buildings currently handled by JO and the manpower deployed for such work;

(4) given that I have learnt that some members of the public have switched to lodge complaints with the Office of The Ombudsman, FEHD or BD about water seepage in buildings on the grounds that JO does not handle such complaints effectively, whether the authorities know the respective numbers of complaints received by such organisations each year since the 2013-2014 financial year;

(5) given that it has become a common practice in the community to investigate the causes of water seepage in buildings by using infrared cameras, which are more time-saving and quicker than colour water tests, whether the authorities have compiled statistics on the number of cases, since the 2013-2014 financial year, in which applications for civil claims were submitted by members of the public, to the Small Claims Tribunal or the Court after they had found the causes of water seepage by using infrared cameras; if they have compiled, of the numbers of such cases; if not, whether they will compile the relevant statistics as soon as possible;

(6) of the time taken and public money spent by JO on studying the use of infrared cameras to identify the sources of water seepage in buildings, and the reasons why this method has not yet been adopted by JO;

(7) given that JO is collaborating with the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute to explore more effective methods for investigating the causes of water seepage, and JO is also preparing for the commissioning of a consultancy study to examine the latest technology in identifying the sources of water seepage in buildings, of the estimated expenditure of the relevant work and the expected completion time;

(8) of the number of cases in which investigations into the sources of water seepage have been outsourced by JO since April 1 this year and the total expenditure so incurred; the average time and expenditure involved in each outsourced investigation; and

(9) how the investigations into the sources of water seepage in buildings conducted by outsourced contractors in the past two financial years compare, in terms of the expenditure and time taken as well as the success rate in identifying the sources of water seepage, to those conducted by JO staff members?

Reply:

President,

     Proper management, maintenance and repair of buildings are the responsibilities of building owners. If water seepage is found in private buildings, the owners should first arrange their own investigation of the cause of seepage and, as appropriate, co-ordinate with the occupants and other owners concerned for repairs. However, where the water seepage poses a health nuisance, a risk to the structural safety of the building or results in wastage of water, the Government would intervene and handle the case in accordance with the powers conferred by the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap 132), Buildings Ordinance (Cap 123) or Waterworks Ordinance (Cap 102) respectively.

     Currently, the Joint Office (JO) set up with the staff of Buildings Department (BD) and Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) provides "one-stop" service in dealing with reports on water seepage. In general, there are three stages in the investigation of a water seepage case conducted by JO. Stage I (confirming the existence of water seepage nuisance) and Stage II (initial investigation including colour water tests on drainage pipes or reversible pressure tests on water supply pipes) are carried out by the staff of JO. Where the source of seepage cannot be identified in Stage II, Stage III (professional investigation) will be required. In Stage III, an outsourced consultant is engaged to assist in conducting detailed investigation including the carrying out of moisture content monitoring of seepage area, water ponding test, water spray test and reversible pressure tests on water supply pipes to identify the source of seepage. Once the source of seepage has been identified at any stage of the investigation, JO will issue a Nuisance Notice to the person concerned under the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance, requiring the abatement of nuisance within a specified period of time.

     My reply to the nine-part question is as follows:

(1) In the 2015-16 financial year, the operation of JO involves 64 professional and technical staff from BD as well as 219 investigation staff from FEHD. The estimated expenditures for staffing provision and departmental expenses incurred by BD and FEHD for the operation of JO are $30 million and $81 million respectively.

(2) From April 1 to July 31 this year, JO had received 10 667 water seepage reports and handled 8 587 cases. The statistics in respect of those reports handled are set out as follows:

 

  Number of 
cases
---------
 
 Cases screened out (Note) 4 297
 Cases with investigations concluded 4 290
 - Source of water seepage identified 1 573
 - Source of water seepage could not be identified 1 194 
 - Seepage ceased during investigation     1 523

* (Note): There are cases such as unjustified cases and withdrawn cases, for which no investigation will be conducted by JO.

     As explained above, there are three stages in the investigation of a water seepage case. The staff of JO are involved in all investigation of water seepage reports, while the outsourced consultant is responsible only for the professional investigation in Stage III. JO does not compile separate statistics on the time for handling each water seepage case or the number of cases concluded at different stages of investigation. However, the time required for investigating each individual case varies due to a number of factors, including the nature and complexity of the case and whether the relevant owners and occupants are co-operative. Therefore JO is not able to provide the average investigation time and expenditure involved in each case.

(3) The statistics on the numbers of water seepage reports received and handled by JO in the past three years in respect of Kwun Tong and Wong Tai Sin districts are shown in the Annex.

     JO staff responsible for these two districts include 10 BD staff and 24 FEHD staff.

(4) The statistics on the numbers of complaints about "water seepage in buildings" lodged with the Office of The Ombudsman involving BD and FEHD since the 2013-14 financial year are tabulated below:

   2013-14
-------------
2014-15
-------------
2015
(First 6 months) 
-------------------- 
 
BD   82 51 20
FEHD 86 61  23 

     BD and FEHD have not compiled statistics on the number of complaints lodged with them by members of the public in relation to the ineffective handling of water seepage reports.

(5) JO does not maintain statistics on the number of applications for civil claims submitted by members of the public to the Small Claims Tribunal or the Court after infrared cameras were used for identifying the source of water seepage. As such statistics may not be able to assist in handling seepage reports, JO does not have present plan to compile them.

(6) and (7) JO keeps abreast of the latest technologies with a view to exploring more effective methods for water seepage investigations. Since late 2013, JO has commissioned a consultant to employ infrared cameras and microwave tomography scanning devices on a trial basis to facilitate identification of the source of water seepage in complicated cases. Up to now, the consultant has completed 64 cases. In six cases the consultant succeeded in having the source of water seepage identified, and nuisance notices have been issued to the owners of the units concerned. The related expenditure was about $900,000.

     However, infrared or microwave tests are indirect testing methods. The accuracy of these tests may vary with site circumstances, and they have to be supplemented by other tests or data in order to effectively confirm the source of water seepage. Therefore JO has engaged a consultant at the end of 2014 to conduct a study on the latest technological methods for identifying the source of water seepage in buildings. The study will research on the technological development both locally and overseas, and carry out field tests on selected cases. It will also assess and recommend the most suitable testing methods for use in private buildings, as well as formulate technical guidelines formulated for JO. It is expected that the study will be completed in 2016 and the total expenditure is estimated to be around $4.5 million.

     In parallel, JO is conducting a study with the assistance of the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, which aims at exploring the feasibility of using real-time monitoring technique in tracing the source of water seepage. This study involves experimental trials in the laboratory and subsequent field tests on the performance of the technology concerned. It is premature to estimate the completion date of the study at this stage. The study is funded by the Innovation and Technology Support Programme under the Innovation and Technology Fund. JO is not required to provide any funding.

(8) and (9) From April 1 to September 30 this year, the expenditure on outsourced consultancy for investigation of source of water seepage is $12.5 million.

     As stated in part (2) of this reply above, JO staff and the outsourced consultant are responsible for different stages of investigation work. As such, JO is unable to make direct comparison of the time and expenditure involved in the investigation work carried out by the outsourced consultant and JO staff as well as their rates of success in identifying the source of water seepage.

Ends/Wednesday, October 14, 2015
Issued at HKT 14:30

30/10/2013- LCQ10: Handling of water seepage cases

Following is a question by the Hon Starry Lee and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (October 30,2013):

Question:

The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and the Buildings Department set up a Joint Office (JO) in 2006 to centralise the handling of complaints and enquiries about water seepage in buildings. In his 2010-2011 Annual Report, The Ombudsman pointed out that the lack of concerted effort among the departments concerned in handling water seepage problems was very common and he had drawn the attention of the Central Administration to the matter and had urged for effective measures for improvement. The Director of Audit's Report No. 59 released last year also pointed out that among 10 of the more recent water-seepage cases examined, there had been long periods of inaction by FEHD in eight of them, with the time of inaction up to five years in individual cases and 44 months on average. The Audit Commission suggested FEHD to improve the efficiency of its investigations. Besides, some professionals have pointed out that the testing techniques currently adopted by the Government are extremely out-dated, requiring entry into the complainant's unit as well as the unit suspected to have caused the seepage, which will prolong the investigation time, and the success rate of ascertaining the source of seepage in the end is on the low side. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) of the number of complaints about water seepage received by JO in each of the past three years, with a breakdown by District Council district where the complaints arose; of the number of those cases in which the source of seepage could not be ascertained in the end and investigation was discontinued; and of the number of cases investigation of which has lasted more than a year but has yet to be concluded since the setting up of JO;

(b) of the measures the departments concerned will take to improve the success rate in ascertaining the source of seepage and to shorten the investigation time required; whether they will consider changing testing techniques to be employed and use more advanced equipment; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that; and

(c) in respect of the cases in which investigation has lasted more than a year but has yet to be concluded, whether the departments concerned will consider according priority to tackling such cases with one-off deployment of additional manpower; if they will, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?

Reply:

President,

As property owners are responsible for management, maintenance and repair of their buildings, they have a responsibility for resolving any inter-floor water seepage problems. Hence, if water seepage is found inside a private property, the owner should first investigate the cause and, as appropriate, co-ordinate with the occupants and other owners concerned for repairs.

Where the water seepage problem poses a public health nuisance, a risk to the structural safety of a building or water wastage, the Government would be obliged to intervene and take action in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap 132), Buildings Ordinance (Cap 123) or Waterworks Ordinance (Cap 102). The Joint Office (JO), currently set up with staff of the Buildings Department and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, is tasked to tackle water seepage cases through a "one-stop shop" approach.

My reply to the three-part question is as follows:

(a) The JO is committed to assisting property owners to handle water seepage cases. The JO conducts different tests to investigate the cause and source of water seepage. However, as there are many different reasons causing water seepage in buildings, there may still be cases where the cause or source of water seepage cannot be established despite extensive practical tests conducted, especially where the seepage is not obvious or only intermittent. In the absence of sufficient evidence which proves that the seepage constitutes a contravention of the relevant legislation, the departments concerned cannot take further enforcement or follow-up action in the case.

In the past three years (i.e. 2010, 2011 and 2012), the JO received a total of 76 730 reports on water seepage. Other than those non-actionable cases which did not involve water seepage, the JO, after the completion of investigation and testing, categorised 6 374 cases as "the source of water seepage could not be ascertained". In 2010, 2011 and 2012, the numbers of reports on water seepage received by the JO as well as cases in which the source of water seepage could not be ascertained and investigation into which was ceased, broken down by the 18 District Council districts in Hong Kong, are set out at Annex. As there was a lapse of time between receipt of a report and the completion of investigation, a water seepage case into which investigation was ceased in a particular year might not necessarily be received in that same year.

The JO does not keep statistics on the processing time of individual cases. Generally speaking, cases which took longer processing time were mainly those with recurring or intermittent water seepage, which called for prolonged investigations and monitoring by the JO.

(b) As mentioned above, there are many different reasons causing water seepage in buildings. In the light of circumstances of individual cases, the JO will adopt appropriate non-destructive tests to ascertain the source of water seepage. The moisture metre and colour water test currently adopted by the JO are widely used and effective means for ascertaining the source of seepage. The moisture metre is user-friendly and can provide accurate and direct measurement of moisture content for reference. As regards the collection of evidence for enforcement, colour water test is the most direct way for proving the source of water seepage.

To enhance the effectiveness of the JO's investigation of the source of water seepage, the JO, with the assistance of the Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute, is working to explore more effective methods for water seepage investigations. In parallel, the JO has recently commissioned consultancy to explore other testing equipment, such as infrared thermography and microwave tomography, with a view to facilitating identification of seepage sources in water seepage investigations.

Since its establishment in 2006, the JO has from time to time reviewed its modus operandi as well as strengthened its manpower and monitoring with a view to enhancing the efficiency and quality of the service. The JO has implemented a number of improvement measures progressively, including strengthening co-ordination and co-operation among the JO staff through regular liaison meetings, formulating milestones and enhancing the Complaint Management Information System for enhanced progress monitoring of cases, as well as drawing up various operational guidelines for reference of staff to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of handling water seepage cases.

(c) The time required for processing a water seepage case largely depends on the complexity of the case and the extent of co-operation of the parties concerned, in particular the owners and occupants involved. Since the circumstances of individual cases vary, the procedures and time taken for investigation may also differ widely. For complicated cases which may, for instance, involve multiple sources, recurring or intermittent water seepage, JO staff will have to conduct different or repeated tests or ongoing investigations and monitoring in order to ascertain the cause of water seepage. As these tests take time and require full co-operation of the owners/occupants concerned, the processing of such complicated cases takes more time in general. Where vacant units or uncooperative owners/occupants are involved, the JO would have to apply to the court for warrants of entry in order to carry out investigations. The processing of these cases would be even more time-consuming.

The JO will take into account the circumstances and needs of individual cases and take appropriate steps to conduct investigation so as to expedite the processing of each water seepage case as far as practicable. Given the varied circumstances of individual cases, prioritising water seepage cases for investigation simply based on the handling time lapsed may not effectively expedite the processing, and is not the most cost-effective arrangement. As such, we have no plan at this stage to accord priority to processing the unresolved cases in which investigation has lasted more than a year. The JO will endeavour to expedite the handling of each water seepage case, taking into account the circumstances of individual cases.


Ends/Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Issued at HKT 14:31

 

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