How shrinking dolphin numbers off Hong Kong’s largest island point up environmental impact assessments
City’s third runway plan, controversial bridge among projects sparking debate
On paper, residents of Kat Hing Gardens, a cluster of small village houses near Kam Sheung Road railway station in Kam Tin should have a phenomenal view – one of sprawling wetlands full of waterbirds and rare butterflies.
After all, the then Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) had built them to compensate for 12 hectares of natural wetland between Kam Tin and Yuen Long that was permanently lost during the construction of the Kam Sheung Road section of the West Rail Line.
The reality however, is a fragmented collection of swamps, isolated from functional wetland systems. Some of them wither in the shade of the viaduct. Most measure just a few thousand square feet and are barricaded from the public by a hostile wall of steel and wire fencing. Apart from mosquitoes, there is minimal life. There are even times when the wetlands are not even wet at all.
“This was just compensation for the sake of compensation,” said Dr Ng Cho-nam an associate professor of geography at the University of Hong Kong. “It is meaningless. These wetlands have no ecological value.”
The West Rail was the first large-scale project to require a managed wetland compensation project under the requirement of the project’s environmental permit, which was based on approval of its environmental impact assessment (EIA).
The example has entered Ng’s educational canon – he teaches EIA at university – as a classic case of short-sighted ecological mitigation and compensation planning as well as the shortcomings of the impact assessment system. “I bring all my students here on field trips,” Ng said.
The West Rail was built more than a decade ago. But as development projects across the city get bigger, more complex and political, critics have raised questions.
Calls for an overhaul of the EIA system have been growing in recent years, with lawmakers on the environmental affairs panel of the Legislative Council demanding that a complete review of the 18-year-old EIA Ordinance be placed on their discussion agenda this term.
“The weakest components of the EIA system are mitigation measures for ecology and the environmental monitoring and auditing [EM&A],” said Dr Michael Lau Wai-neng, assistant director of conservation at WWF-Hong Kong and a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment, which must vet EIA reports and make recommendations to the government.
He was referring to the chapter of the EIA technical memorandum that requires “verification of predictions or measures” to mitigate environmental impacts upon completion of the project.
Dr Gordon Maxwell, an ecologist an Open University and a former EIA appeal board member, agreed and said the ordinance needed to be enhanced as it currently “excluded more things than it included”. “It doesn’t take into account or pay attention to the ecological function,” he said. “We should be trying to enhance the ecological quality.”
Coming under intense public scrutiny in recent years has undoubtedly been the city’s HK$141.5 billion third runway system. It is Hong Kong’s biggest infrastructure project since the new airport was built.
Activists have slammed the issuing of an environmental permit to the Airport Authority as a breach of “procedural justice”. The EIA, they claim, had left several environmental and ecological questions unanswered but had still been approved.
A judicial review over the decision was recently thrown out by the High Court.
The judicial challengers believed there had been a lack of immediate mitigation measures in the EIA to compensate for the more than 650 hectares of permanent habitat loss – mainly to the protected Chinese white dolphin. Issues such as the accumulative impacts from surrounding projects such as the bridge connecting Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai had also been ignored.
One of the 250 mitigation measures was the creation of an enlarged protected marine park for dolphins – but only when the project was completed in 2023. The authority’s experts claim displaced dolphins will come back eventually but conservationists believe this is “wishful thinking”.
Spelling doom for dolphins
Dr Samuel Hung Ka-yiu, chairman of the Dolphin Conservation Society, has been one of the project’s biggest critics. He said it was disappointing the city had not learned from the experience of the EIA for the bridge. The project had also been subject to judicial review over unaddressed issues of pollution and the use of faulty methodology in the EIA.
The project was delayed after the Court of First Instance ruled the assessment failed to meet the government’s own standards in 2011. But the government appealed and the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal.
Chinese white dolphin numbers in northern Lantau have tanked since construction work began in 2011, driven to waters further away or to death by deafening noise pollution and declining fish stocks.
Elaborate mitigation measures were introduced in the EIA from silt curtains to action and limit levels. But dolphin numbers are still going down and nobody can be held responsible.
From an average encounter rate of 7.7 sightings per 100km in 2011, the figure dropped to just 1.4 in 2015. Their abundance in north Lantau has nearly halved since 2010. Since 2015, the number of dolphins seen in northern Lantau waters has fallen by 60 per cent.
“The [bridge project] pretty much opened the Pandora’s box of easy to pass EIAs,” said Hung. His theory, he claimed, had been confirmed by the judicial decision on the runway EIA.
Hung said the biggest problem with EIA reports was that they were commissioned to “independent” consultants by project proponents and were almost always approved by the government. “Their main job is to make sure their client’s EIA is passed, not to ensure that the environment is protected,” he said, pointing out that in many cases such as in the third runway, the same consultant was hired to help do the EM&A. “The question arises: are they truly independent?”
Since the ordinance was introduced, the director for environmental protection has received 240 EIA reports. Of these, 38 had failed to either meet certain criteria or were withdrawn before consultation. Just one was rejected.
Role of gatekeeper in doubt
It doesn’t help that the gatekeeper for the EIA, the director, also holds the position of permanent secretary for the environment, a post at risk of coming under political pressure.
“There are too many interests involved in EIAs,” said Dr Billy Hau Chi-hang, a University of Hong Kong ecologist and a member of the Advisory Council on the Environment, who has been calling for a review of the system rather than the ordinance.
“In this political environment there is always the chance of political manipulation. Even if a review of the ordinance is conducted, will it actually strengthen it?” he said.
Because most designated projects are proposed by the Hong Kong government, Hau believed it would be difficult for a director, who was also a member of the policy bureau, to split his professional and political roles in making decisions on EIAs.
The perceived conflict of interest is most apparent when it comes to government projects – the planned controversial waste incinerator on Shek Kwu Chau, for instance, was floated by the Environmental Protection Department, the body that would scrutinise and approve its EIA.
In defence of the ordinance
Those involved in EIAs, however, are quick to defend the system and brand much of the criticism as “unfair”. Built on the backs of those in the Netherlands, Australia and Canada, the system is hailed as a pioneering development for Asia that helped inspire others.
Introduced in 1998, the EIA Ordinance was seen as a way to avoid, minimise and control adverse environmental impacts from designated projects through a thorough process and a permit system. The principles were avoidance, minimisation, compensation and enhancement.
“The process has been shown to be solid over 18 years. It works, it has given the accepted result that they wanted in the legislation, and the professionalism has increased, I would say, by an order of 10,” said Dr Glenn Frommer, a former head of corporate sustainability for the MTR Corporation, who helped develop the assessment for the airport railway project in the early 1990s.
“Environmental protection is now a common theme. You cannot build a large scale infrastructure project in Hong Kong without having environmental professionals involved to do the adequate planning, implementation and operation.”
Clara U Kam-wa, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Institute of Environmental Impact Assessment and a senior assessor with the Environmental Protection Department, points out that over 200 EIAs have been approved since the ordinance was implemented and many developments in environmental engineering and design were adopted after being put through the EIA process. She did not believe there were conflicts of interest in the department’s dual positions as all EIAs were assessed strictly according to the technical memorandums.
“There have been so many hidden successes and unexpected consequences [of EIAs],” U said. She pointed to the influence of the Lok Ma Chau Spur Line project in altering engineering preferences from tunnels to viaducts and the evolution of excavation works to favour non-dredging methods.
In 1998, an EIA study brief set requirements on greenhouse gases at a time when climate change was not as hot a topic, influencing a decision by applicant HK Electric to opt for a gas-fired generating facility in its extension to the Lamma Island power station.
“It’s actually a very interesting story as, at that time, no one considered greenhouse gases as a pollution source,” said Freeman Cheung Chun-ming, a senior vice president for environment at engineering consultancy AECOM and a former institute chair. “They basically set the frame that new generation units would have to run on natural gas and not coal.”
Frommer highlighted two fundamental developments over the decades that EIAs will have to keep up with: the “de-siloisation” of issues set out in the memorandums and the evolution of public participation in the EIA process.
“We’re now seeing more connections between air, noise, water, waste, agricultural risk, chemical usage issues,” he said.
A frequent criticism of the ordinance has been the lax public engagement requirements. A project proponent, for instance, is only required to consult the public and advisory council on project profiles for 14 days and on their EIA reports for one to two months.
The way forward
Conservationists like Hung believe there will be a significant “deterioration of trust” in EIAs. “After the bridge EIA was approved, I knew the third runway would finish off the dolphins,” he said. “The[project proponents] have become just too good at gaming the system.”
EIA scholars are relatively more sanguine. Ng of HKU supports “mitigation banking” – a system similar to carbon banking in which habitat loss from one project is banked as credits and used for off-site mitigation somewhere more feasible.