$260m shelter 'a white elephant'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 May, 2006, 12:00am

Few boats using new Tai O typhoon anchorage, which residents say has damaged the environment

The new $260 million typhoon shelter in Tai O is a 'white elephant' because only a few boats have used it since it was opened last September, according to residents and a green group.

They also described the project as an 'environmental disaster' because the construction work destroyed the fishing village's heritage and natural scenery.

The four-hectare anchorage, with a capacity of 200 boats, was aimed at reviving Tai O's fishing industry and promoting tourism.

But Daniel Lam Wai-keung, chairman of the Island District Council, said: 'Originally we wanted the typhoon shelter to revive the fishing industry here but the result is not as good as we expected. It doesn't seem like there will be many boats back here this typhoon season.'

The project also included a 130-metre promenade with landing steps, the restoration of a historic sea wall and the building of a new sea wall for the shelter.

During construction of the anchorage and associated marine channels, two million cubic metres of mud was dredged away from an abandoned salt pan area. A seven-hectare intertidal area was then set up in which mangroves will be replanted. The replanting is to compensate for the loss of mangroves due to construction of Chek Lap Kok airport.

A Civil Engineering and Development Department document at the time the project was launched in 2003 estimated about 200 boats would anchor in the shelter once it was completed.

But residents said they barely see any boats in the new shelter. Two visits by the South China Morning Post last week only found one fishing boat in the anchorage. There were seven small fishing boats nearby, but they were anchored next to the landing steps.

'I pass by the shelter area every day and most of the time the typhoon shelter is empty. I have only seen two boats there once,' said Wong Wai-king, founder of the Tai O Cultural Workshop.

'Of course, you can argue that it is not typhoon season but there are many boats in other shelters during winter and spring. It is a complete waste of money, a white elephant.'

Ms Wong, who was once a fisherman, said the fishing industry had long been in decline in the area and the typhoon shelter was unlikely to draw fishermen back.

The project raised heated debate during its planning, not least because residents argued the local fishing industry was declining. But it was pushed ahead with the support of Tai O Rural Committee and the Islands District Council.

Ms Wong said the typhoon shelter had destroyed Tai O's heritage and natural scenery. 'They wiped out the abandoned salt pan, which was an important part of the village's history,' she said.

'Worse still, the new sea wall has blocked us from the precious sunset scenery. Now we cannot see the sun going down to the water from ground level. We campaigned so hard at the time against this project. Now it is just too late to prove that we were right. The damage is done.'

Ng Cho-nam, a geography professor from the University of Hong Kong and a core member of the Conservancy Association, said there was no point in destroying the salt pan because it was already a wetland.

'As you can see, this area is now built like a park and looks so artificial,' Dr Ng said. 'It is ridiculous. The government has been talking so hard about promoting tourism but they build things at a popular tourist spot which destroyed the best scenery.'

The Islands District Council's Daniel Lam admitted there were fewer fishing boats in the new shelter than the council had expected.

'This is a bit disappointing,' he said. 'Apparently many fishermen have gone further afield and do not opt to come back to Tai O. We just hope the fishing industry in Tai O will get better later.'

The Marine Department said it did not keep records on how many boats anchor at the Tai O shelter.

The Civil Engineering and Development Department, which is responsible for the project, only said it had handed over the facility to the Marine Department to manage. A spokesman, however, stressed that the project was endorsed by the district council and the rural committee and that more boats might anchor there during the coming July to September typhoon season.