Need for land policy
When the American writer Mark Twain remarked in the last century that 'land is valuable, they're not making it any more', he was aiming his barbed wit at developers who were despoiling vast tracks of virgin countryside in the United States. At the time, nobody could have foreseen a world where land could be 'made' on the scale that it has been conjured up in recent years in Hong Kong. For the last two decades, the waters around our shores have been pushed back remorselessly. The harbour is around half as wide as it once was, and buildings once on the waterfront are now well inland.
The expansion of Hong Kong's physical space has been fundamental to its prosperity. Land reclamation has been integral to the city's growth, with an impressive display of engineering skills and an intensive use of the new land.
Not everyone is happy about these changes. Now that so much reclamation has taken place, there is a growing view that land formation and reclamation should not be allowed to get out of hand.
The reasons are not simply aesthetic or sentimental. The role of the sea in our everyday life cannot be overlooked. It has to cope with all the detritus of human habitation, sewage and industrial waste. The worry now is that it could be overwhelmed by pollution.
In his policy speech, Tung Chee-hwa mentioned reclamation as a means of providing more land for housing. The SAR Government has a daunting task in planning to provide homes for a population which it is estimated could grow to around 8.2 million in 2016, when building land will be in acutely short supply.
At present, elaborate schemes which will redraw the map are futuristic. But, in the coming years, developers with the expanding population in mind will push for land formation schemes to be given the go-ahead. Before any irrevocable decisions are taken, the community should be fully informed of all the implications of taking more land from the sea.
The most acceptable policy would be to take the question out of politics, and set up a consultation team to examine all the factors that have to be considered if we are to squeeze the sea into an ever narrower space. The practical needs of an expanding population have to be balanced against the requirements of the SAR's quality of life and the preservation of the character of Hong Kong.
The SAR should continue to develop, but in a way that takes into account the eco-system on which our future relies. This is not an abstract question, but something which concerns the quality of life for millions of people. It would be a far-sighted and practical step to set up a team of experts from all sides of industry and technology, together with marine biologists and environmentalists, to see whether the needs of continuing development and future housing requirements can be balanced with the protection of the environment in which we live, in its broadest sense.
Otherwise, a modern Twain may be forced to say, in years to come: 'The sea is valueless, there's nothing in it any more.'