Deep Bay project must not start without sound conservation plan

Trevor Yang says without a wetland trust, housing project will damage the area's ecological value

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 1:41am

The fate of the Deep Bay area can no longer be left to future discussion. It is a place of important ecological value, designated for international protection under the Ramsar wetland convention.

It has taken us decades to make some progress in managing a small part of this wetland system, in the hope of conserving the whole. Yet, Deep Bay's ecological value has steadily declined. Development has risen to the top of the city's economic and political agendas.

Changes in corporate practice are essential if there is to be real progress

Deep Bay cannot wait any longer. In the wake of WWF-Hong Kong's departure from the Fung Lok Wai project, now is the most opportune time to bring all back to the table.

Any discussion of a holistic plan for Deep Bay should be prefaced by an overview of the area's development history. Marshlands were reclaimed for planting rice 1,000 years ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, many rice paddies in the area were turned into fish ponds for better economic return.

Development caught up in the area with the building of Fairview Park in the mid-1970s, followed by the Tin Shui Wai new town and Palm Springs. Also at that time, land developers bought up the fish ponds and large tracts of farmland.

This, plus the introduction of more commercial fishing practices to meet increasing local demand, began to create challenging conditions for the ecosystem of Inner Deep Bay. In the 1980s, green groups began to ask the government for a holistic conservation management plan. Urban planning discussions can take decades, but time is a luxury nature cannot afford.

The ecological value of fish ponds, which in essence are artificial wetlands, is related to the management practices employed by fish pond farmers. Fish ponds are an integral part of the Deep Bay ecosystem, and fish pond farming is regarded as an example of the wise use of wetlands in a Ramsar site.

In traditional practices, ponds are drained in winter for harvesting. Fish and shrimp with no commercial value are left at the bottom of the pond, and become food for wintering migratory water birds. Deep Bay is home to tens of thousands of these birds each winter.

Over the past two decades, fish pond farming has gravitated towards two extremes. As traditional fish pond farming became less profitable due to competition from the mainland, farmers in Hong Kong began to quit the industry, resulting in an increasing number of abandoned ponds. At the other extreme, commercial fish pond farming expanded around the Deep Bay area.

Abandoned fish ponds gave rise to an invasion of vegetation into the open water, no draining of pond water, and an invasion of exotic species. The rise of commercial fish ponds, on the other hand, led to pond embankments covered with concrete and plastic sheets, fences erected around pond boundaries and devices installed to flush out birds.

Both developments have dramatically reduced the ecological value of Deep Bay.

With about half of the land within and around the Ramsar site privately owned, and considering the challenges of applying a holistic plan to the area, we identified a workable and mutually beneficial option years before the government's New Nature Conservation Policy in 2004: the public-private partnership approach. In this way, the majority of the Deep Bay site would be set aside for wetland conservation, with long-term funding by a project proponent for its continual management, who would then develop a small portion of the less ecologically sensitive part.

We considered our participation in the Fung Lok Wai project at Deep Bay an important attempt to set a precedent to preserve, and even enhance, the ecological value of the area. But for the partnership to succeed, it is critical to establish a wetland trust; the land ownership, funds and management would be transferred to the trust, which would be overseen by an independent board of both wetland experts and government representatives. The trust could be enlarged, to include other wetlands and funds under one umbrella.

While the Fung Lok Wai project has been approved and the planning application is due for consideration by the Town Planning Board, diverging views still exist among the public, the project proponent and the WWF on critical issues. We hope our withdrawal from this project will allow society to explore and reach a consensus on how best to conserve the important wetlands of the Inner Deep Bay area.

Changes in corporate practice are essential if there is to be real progress in tackling conservation challenges like climate change, clean energy solutions and sustainable use of natural resources.

Key stakeholders need to urgently discuss the development of the Deep Bay area, whose future is complex and involves policies on conservation, land, cultural heritage, agriculture and food security. We owe it to Hong Kong's natural environment for all parties to come together to engender thorough and continued co-operation.

Trevor Yang is chairman of WWF-Hong Kong