22 April 2019
A picture shows Kau Yi Chau island, near the area where the government aims to create artificial islands through large-scale reclamation.  Reclamation need not mean environmental destruction, argues Prof. Wong Yuk-shan. Photo: HKEJ
A picture shows Kau Yi Chau island, near the area where the government aims to create artificial islands through large-scale reclamation. Reclamation need not mean environmental destruction, argues Prof. Wong Yuk-shan. Photo: HKEJ

Examining Lantau reclamation plan from a scientific perspective

Many young people in Hong Kong seem to bear an over-simplistic view of the Lantau reclamation plan put forward by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her policy address in October.

A lot of them simply think that reclaiming land from the sea is, without exception, is an activity that is hostile to the environment.

As a person who has been working in the field of environmental protection for years, I believe we should look at the proposal from a scientific perspective and from an objective standpoint, and must avoid jumping to conclusions easily.

Like I have explained to some young people who believe land reclamation equals environmental destruction, the key question here isn’t whether to reclaim land or not, but rather, where to do it and how to do it.

Under the ‘Lantau Tomorrow Vision’ blueprint, the government has proposed to build artificial islands in the adjacent waters of Kau Yi Chau and Hei Ling Chau east of Lantau.

These are relatively shallow waters which aren’t standing in the way of our main shipping routes, and which aren’t the natural habitat for the Chinese white dolphin (or Sousa chinensis).

Therefore, this choice of location can reduce the adverse impact on marine life in Hong Kong to a minimum.

As far as how to reclaim land is concerned, it is true that the old usual method of reclaiming land that relies heavily on dredging and disposal of marine mud has proven to be highly destructive to the seabed.

But reclamation technologies have come a long way since then, and the introduction of the new non-dredged reclamation method, which is the deep cement mixing method, in recent years can satisfy the requirements of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

As to concerns about whether the huge man-made island proposed under the Lantau Tomorrow Vision plan can withstand super typhoons and the resulting storm surges, I believe modern engineering and scientific technologies can guarantee the safety and structural strength of artificial islands even in the face of extreme weather conditions.

The fact that the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge has ridden out Super Typhoon Mangkhut totally intact speaks volumes about the reliability of our existing technologies on building man-made structures in the sea.

Meanwhile, there has aso been a view among society that the Hong Kong government should seek approval from the mainland authorities for reclaiming land outside Hong Kong waters, for instance, near Guishan Island to the southwest of Lantau as some have proposed, because reclaiming land within the territory is time-consuming and costly.

In my opinion, this approach might be worth discussing, but is not necessarily worth pursuing.

It is because, first, it is my firm belief that Hong Kong should always resolve its issues within its own borders as long as the territory has the means and space to do so.

Second, seeking to build a huge man-made island outside Hong Kong’s territory will involve a lot of complicated legal and constitutional issues among others, not to mention that Beijing may not necessarily agree with such proposal.

Then third, from an environmental point of view, the waters off the coast of West Lantau are the main natural habitat of the Chinese white dolphin, which means reclaiming land there definitely won’t be a viable and popular option.

Besides, even if a man-made island is built off West Lantau, it will be too far away from our urban areas, which means it is certainly not a good choice of location when it comes to ensuring accessibility and cost-effectiveness.

In the past, a lot of major land reclamation projects have been carried out within Hong Kong, and such initiatives have provided the city with a great deal of land.

For example, certain sites in new towns like Sha Tin, Tai Po and Tuen Mun were created through reclamation, not to mention the Hong Kong International Airport, which lies on a mega over-thousand-hectare man-made island.

Let’s not forget that back in the 1990s, the massive land reclamation project in Chek Lap Kok also provoked a huge controversy in society.

However, in hindsight, perhaps today every Hong Kong citizen will be thankful that the administration back then had both the resolve and determination to press ahead with the project and stay the course despite widespread skepticism at that time.

It is because without reclamation, we wouldn’t have the Chek Lap Kok airport today. And without the new airport, Hong Kong would by no means be able to maintain its status as an international maritime, economic and financial hub.

The harsh reality facing our city at this point is that, lying at the root of our most fundamental social conflict is the acute housing shortage, and the underlying cause for our housing shortage is, as we all know, our seriously insufficient land supply.

That being said, if we are really determined to address our deep-rooted social conflict, we must have the unwavering resolve to tackle the issue of land shortage head-on by adopting the viable option of creating new land through massive reclamation.

Therefore, I believe the ‘Lantau Tomorrow Vision’, under which a total of 1,700 hectares of land will be created, is definitely worth supporting!

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov 30

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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President of the Open University of Hong Kong

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