Behind Carrie Lam’s grand reclamation plan for Hong Kong lies an inconvenient truth

The chief executive is determined to push ahead with her Lantau Tomorrow Vision as a solution to the city’s housing crisis, but the environmental costs – for both Hong Kong and the mainland – are being glossed over and less ecologically damaging options effaced
Increasing Hong Kong’s land supply through reclamation has became controversial as public awareness grows about the irreversible damage it causes to marine habitats.
Although the Chinese white dolphin was the mascot of the Hong Kong handover, its numbers have kept dropping because of large-scale infrastructure projects such as the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and Hong Kong airport’s third runway. There were 188 dolphins recorded in 2003 but only 32 in 2019, an alarming drop of 83 per cent.
This beloved mammal has been listed as a “Grade 1 national key protected animal” since 1988 and is also protected by Hong Kong law, but is now on the verge of extinction due to development without adequate consideration of sustainability. And Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is, it seems, unconcerned.
Lam’s recent responses in media interviews about proposed large-scale reclamation off Lantau Island for increasing land supply give cause for greater anxiety about her apparent lack of environmental consciousness, and even logic.
It was reported that she does not consider reclamation in mainland waters to be an option because of President Xi Jinping’s passion for environmental conservation. But she apparently sees no problem for the ecosystem if the Hong Kong government carries out such reclamation in Hong Kong waters.
Lam must be aware that there is no physical boundary separating Hong Kong waters from those of the mainland. If the marine habitat of Hong Kong is destroyed, a line on the map cannot prevent it from having an impact on the mainland’s natural environment.
Another concern regarding reclamation is the huge demand for fill material. The government has claimed that the city has generated a large amount of construction waste that is being stored in public facilities, and which can be used for the 1,700-hectare Lantau Tomorrow Vision.
However, Lam has failed to address the reclamation problems relating to the 650-hectare third runway due to suspended delivery of fill materials from the mainland for over four months last year. The work was estimated to require 100 million cubic metres of material, with only 10 per cent of that to be obtained from the city’s public reserve. The remaining 90 million cubic metres, mainly marine sand, are to be bought from Qinzhou in Guangxi.
Dredging such vast quantities of natural sand will cause irreversible damage to the Qinzhou ecosystem. So Lam’s apparent belief that no environmental harm will be inflicted on the mainland from reclamation work in Hong Kong waters is sadly misguided.
Another important consideration should be carbon emissions. Based on the estimated fill materials needed for the third runway, the 1,700-hectare Lantau Tomorrow Vision could require over 260 million cubic metres of fill. Delivering these huge amounts of sand the 950km from Qinzhou to Hong Kong will inevitably create a large carbon footprint. This is an inconvenient truth that Lam and her top officials prefer not to disclose.
According to the Development Bureau, 15 million tonnes of construction waste are generated every year in Hong Kong, enough to reclaim only 60 hectares of land. Simple maths shows that, should the Lantau Tomorrow Vision mainly rely on the local supply of fill materials, it could take up to 28 years to complete the reclamation work, not to mention the time needed for other statutory procedures such as environmental impact assessments.
Many Hongkongers, who are desperate to live in public housing, would be shocked and frustrated by such a lengthy timeline.
Green groups have often reminded the government that there are more environmentally friendly alternatives than reclamation. The Planning Department’s feasibility study on brownfield sites in the New Territories released in November 2019 shows there are 700 hectares of such sites with development potential.
In addition, the Development Bureau estimated that major Hong Kong developers are holding no less than 1,000 hectares of agricultural land in the New Territories. The government has been buying back land from developers by exercising the Lands Resumption Ordinance for public purposes.
Developers that claim to be socially and environmentally responsible should grasp this opportunity to help Hong Kong tackle the land shortage for public housing and simultaneously help conserve nature by agreeing to sell their agricultural land to the government or jointly developing their land mainly for public housing.
Utilising brownfield sites in the New Territories for housing would shorten the development time and avoid the ecologically destructive process of large-scale reclamation. If the Lam administration could resolve its public housing shortage using this more sustainable approach, it would ease social tensions and save the Chinese white dolphins from extinction.
Edwin Lau
Executive Director, The Green Earth
28 Oct 2020 SCMP
The Green Earth’s Position Paper on Artificial Islands in the Central Waters (Lantau Tomorrow Vision)