Hong Kong government urged to plug loophole allowing destruction of Lantau wetlands

Campaigners and district councillor decry way landowners are able to damage sensitive rural sites in bid to secure development permission

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 10:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 10:03am

Hong Kong’s latest blueprint for developing Lantau could lead to the destruction of large areas of precious wetland and protected coastline if the government fails to plug a legal loophole, environmentalists and a district councillor have warned.

The loophole allowed private owners to damage ecologically valuable sites – even if the lots were in protected zones – to pave the way for future land use changes, the groups said.

“We have already seen changes to wetlands under development pressure,” said Roy Ng Hei-man, campaigner for environmental group Conservancy Association.

The Development Bureau released its blueprint last Saturday with the aim of transforming the 147 sq km island into a commercial and tourism hub with a population of one million after 2030 – a ninefold increase from the current population of 110,000.

Major housing and economic developments are planned for northern and eastern parts, while the south and west will be preserved – albeit with new recreational and tourism facilities.

Eric Kwok Ping, an Islands district councillor representing Lantau, said Pui O in South Lantau was one of the areas most affected by damage.

The area has some 140 hectares of wetland – officially designated as a coastal protection area – but Kwok estimated that one third had been filled in, dried up or had construction waste dumped on it.

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He said, for example, about 40 per cent of wetland in Ham Tin village in Pui O had been damaged over the past 15 years. The owners then managed to secure approval from the town planning authority to change its land use to allow village house development on the ground that the ecological value of the sites had diminished, Kwok said.

“The government cannot enforce the law in these areas, so this kind of destroy and develop tactic has become rampant,” he said.

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Although areas such as Pui O are protected zones, the planning authority does not have enforcement power because they are not covered by development permission area plans, which are designed to regulate development on agricultural land in the New Territories.

The government has refused to extend the area plans to places like Pui O, saying they are covered by outline zoning plans, which cover most of the urban areas and city outskirts, as well as outlying islands.

The Town Planning Ordinance stipulates that areas covered by zoning plans cannot be included in area plans. While developments in zoning plans must comply with buildings regulations and land lease conditions, the two legal tools do not target activities allowed by the owner that damage or degrade privately owned agricultural land without structures on it.

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One recent example, according to Ng, is an application to the Town Planning Board last month to develop a 5,000 sq m holiday camp for caravans and tents in Pui O’s protected area.

Ng said the proposed site, which used to be wetland, had already been damaged by the owner through dry farming, which is incompatible with wetland ecosystems.

“Blocking that loophole is crucial,” said Dr Michael Lau Wai-neng, WWF Hong Kong’s wetlands conservation director.

“With more construction set for north Lantau, it is highly likely that some of the construction waste will be dumped [in the south],” Lau said. “Banning dump trucks carrying waste from entering south Lantau and more patrols and enforcement are needed.”

Lobby group Save Lantau Alliance and Kwok also suggested setting up a conservation fund for the government to buy private wetland sites so they can be better protected.

The government states in the blueprint that it will explore measures to combat waste dumping and conserve wetland areas. There is no elaboration on what this means.