More runways are only the start: race to reclaim land in the Pearl River Delta is worrying

Johnny Wei says for a start, Hong Kong officials must work with their Shenzhen counterparts to coordinate plans for airport expansion in both cities, so as to minimise pressure on the marine environment

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 11:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 6:57pm

Hong Kong is not alone in wanting a three-runway system. Its neighbour Shenzhen is now preparing for an airport expansion, and this is posing a challenge for our cross-border coordination in at least one key aspect – the environment.

After several years of turnover growth, the Shenzhen Airport Group has just completed its second and last round of consultation for an environmental impact assessment for reclamation of 439 hectares of land, for the purpose of building a third runway. This reclamation is smaller in scale than the one proposed by Hong Kong for its own third runway (650 hectares). Regardless, the two reclamation projects are too close – only 32km apart – and are likely to threaten the habitat of the Chinese white dolphins, as well as compromise the water quality and long-term carrying capacity of the Pearl River Delta estuary.

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As close observers of marine construction projects and their cumulative impact, we are alarmed by this unprecedented estuary-wide “reclamation contest”. Shenzhen airport’s ambition accounts for only a quarter of the near-term reclamation, or equivalent to a mere 8 per cent of the sea-to-land conversion blueprint of the special economic zone. Other cities including Zhuhai ( 珠海 ), Huizhou (惠州) and Guangzhou all have their own greedy plan of “asking for land” from the waters.

We’re not even counting the massive reclamation for the bridge connecting Hong Kong with Zhuhai and Macau, or the 350 hectares reserved for Macau’s new town development.

The question is: where is the limit of reclamation?

Several procedures must be completed before Shenzhen airport can break ground for its expansion. These include disclosure of the environmental impact assessment report, a public hearing, submission for state-level approval and an assessment of social stability risk.

We don’t know how long these proceedings will take, nor how much of Hongkongers’ concerns will be taken into account. There’s a good chance Shenzhen’s third-runway construction will overlap with Hong Kong’s, and this will exert greater pressure on seawater quality.

We don’t deny an airport plays a significant role for a city. The question is: where is the limit of reclamation and who may be qualified to set it?

A lack of coordinated environmental planning has long plagued the Pearl River Delta. The ties between the Hong Kong and Guangdong governments are mostly limited to economic collaboration, with little effort spent on cross-border environmental improvement.

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We urge Hong Kong’s Environmental Protection Department to establish a communication channel with the Shenzhen Oceanic Administration and its Human Settlements and Environment Commission to obtain information on the anticipated expansion period of Shenzhen airport and its study of cumulative impacts. The two governments must work out a schedule that can protect the environment.

Pollution has no respect for borders, as shown by the recent rubbish surge in Lantau waters

Hong Kong should share with the Shenzhen authorities the lessons it learned about the negative impact of reclamation, and the use of its Protection of the Harbour Ordinance in limiting damage. Hong Kong went on a reclamation spree in the 1980s and 1990s. Shenzhen, where housing prices are at historical highs, now intends to boost its land supply in a similar approach but has little knowledge about the long-term costly payback.

Hong Kong must not shirk its regional responsibilities and must take part in delta initiatives such as the strategic environmental impact assessment inaugurated by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection last October. The assessment, led by Beijing with the involvement of Guangdong, was created to evaluate the overall carrying capacity of our delta and develop planning strategies for estuary conservation and pollution control.

Pollution has no respect for borders, as shown by the recent rubbish surge in Lantau waters. Unless it takes the initiative with the mainland, Hong Kong has no hope of improving its environmental quality.

Johnny Wei is co-founder of the CrossBorder Environment Concern Association