Reclamation plans pose wildlife threat
In Hong Kong's quest for land, all possible solutions come with criticism. But a recent land reclamation scheme is drawing disapproval from an unlikely place - the world of biology.
Marine scientist Wong Chi-chun has braved strong currents and busy water channels to photograph several sites earmarked for land reclamation. 'I hope the release of these pictures will encourage the public to rethink if it's necessary to have huge reclamation,' Wong says.
Reclamation is one of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's plans to boost land supply to ease the housing shortage. The city says it needs an extra 1,500 hectares of land to support its growing population, which is expected to hit 8.9 million by 2039.
The government has marked 25sites for possible reclamation, including Tseung Kwan O, Shuen Wan, Wu Kai Sha, Shek O Quarry, Hei Ling Chau, Beaufort Island, Lamma North and South Cheung Chau. Wong has released underwater pictures of some of these sites. He said efforts to protect marine life - such as projects that improved water quality and a recent ban on trawler fishing - would be wasted if large-scale reclamation went ahead.
At least nine of the 25sites are home to sensitive marine life. In 2003, Wong saw a red lionfish off Shek O Quarry - an uncommon sight in Hong Kong waters.
In 2001, he saw a rare, 100-year-old table coral measuring more than two metres in diameter, 69 metres below the surface, between Po Toi Island and Beaufort Island. This specimen had been undisturbed because of rapid currents around it and its depth. Its flat shape, which gave the coral its name, made it particularly vulnerable to sedimentation, he said.
Wong said: 'Not all species found are highly sensitive, but few people know there are corals at urbanised sites like Tseung Kwan O. I think the public has the right to know.'
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department confirmed that the two species could be found in Hong Kong only off the southeastern islands and in eastern waters. Finless porpoises and another type of soft coral, sea whip, have been found at sites that are more accessible to the public, including Cheung Chau and Tseung Kwan O. The department said Cheung Chau was near the key habitat of Hong Kong's finless porpoises, but said that porpoise sightings there have been low.
Allan Woodley, an Australian lawyer who lived and worked in Hong Kong for a number of years, said: 'Reclaiming land around the outlying islands will be another nail in the coffin of Hong Kong's identity, as well as destroying fishing and breeding grounds and the habitats of various forms of marine life.
'[Its] fishing heritage, its people, boats, associated festivals, temples and beliefs, such as Tin Hau and Tam Kung, are unique and deserving of protection. They're fundamental to the identity of Hong Kong.'
A department spokeswoman said it would assess the potential impact of any reclamation and recommend measures to reduce the environmental impact.
Sites at Shuen Wan and Wu Kai Sha may also have valuable marine life as they are next to Lung Mei, in Tai Po, where more than 200 marine creatures have been identified.
Life sciences professor Ang Put-o, of Chinese University, said reclamation had an irreversible impact on coral reefs, which require sunlight to survive. Reefs near Chek Lap Kok were harmed when the government reclaimed land for the airport. 'It will be hard for coral to recover when their habitat becomes turbid and full of silt [so you cannot see through it],' Ang said.
Chau Kwong-wing, professor of real estate and construction at the University of Hong Kong, said reclamation may not be a bad choice given the lack of infrastructure in the New Territories.
Yet the public should be given all the facts and options with specific costs, risks and environmental impacts. 'If the public is informed of the high opportunity cost involved, they may be less resistant to reclaiming sites [where the impact on marine life] would be lower.' The Development Bureau said marine life would be considered when allocating sites for reclamation. It says about 20,000 hectares of rural land are available, of which 1,000 hectares have been identified for development.
This is an edited version of related stories that appeared in the South China Morning Post last month
To address the growing problem of a lack of housing and in preparing for the rising population in Hong Kong, the government proposed a plan for more reclamation last month. The move has worried experts in the marine biology field and the environmentalists, since more than a third of the proposed sites are home to valuable marine creatures or suspected to be ecologically sensitive. Some people, including former members of the town planning board, questioned the need for reclamation when there is plenty of unused land available. Many said that the public should be given all the facts and options so they can make an informed decision.
Voices: What people are saying
'Not all species found are highly sensitive, but few people know there are corals at urbanised sites like Tseung Kwan O. I think the public has the right to know'
Marine biologist Wong Chi-chun
'If the area [near Tung Chung] is reclaimed, the habitat [of the pipefish] will be gone. We should start protecting them now'
Man Chi-sum, chief executive of Green Power, a conservation group
'It will be hard [for the coral] to recover when their habitat becomes covered with silt'
Professor Ang Put-o, School of Life Sciences at Chinese University
'We should pay respect to the ancestors of this city, which started off as a fishing village, but look at how the government is humiliating us ... Each bit of the sea that is filled is a dent in our rice bowl, and the government thinks they can just put us out of work and pay us off'
Keung Siu-fai, secretary of the Hong Kong & Kowloon Floating Fishermen's Welfare Promotion Association, on possible reclamation site off North Lamma
'Reclaiming land around the outlying islands will be another nail in the coffin of Hong Kong's identity, as well as destroying fishing and breeding grounds and the habitats of various forms of marine life'
Allan Woodley, Sydney, Australia
'Reclamation may not be a bad choice given the lack of infrastructure in the New Territories. But the public is hardly going to be convinced if they are not informed of the pros and cons of all options'
Chau Kwong-wing, department of real estate and construction, HKU
'Engineering works of the proposed reclamations will be costly [as will] the infrastructure and the transport systems needed. So any housing built on it will be too expensive for the general public and cannot solve problems of high housing prices'
Winston K. S. Chu, adviser, Society for Protection of the Harbour