In Hong Kong, more than seven million people squeeze into a land area of only 1,104 sq km. Reclamation is one of many ways to make space for the skyrocketing population. But in Dubai, an emirate almost four times larger in terms of land area, the population barely exceeds two million. This raises the question: why does Dubai need to reclaim land?
Reclamation in Dubai does not serve the same purpose as it does in Hong Kong - creating land to cope with a rising population. In Dubai, land is usually reclaimed to fulfil economic ambitions: boosting tourism and solidifying its image as a financial powerhouse.
The most well-known reclamation in Dubai is the Palm Islands project by Nakheel, a local real estate developer. It consists of three palm-shaped islands. With Palm Jumeirah already built and Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira on the way, the three artificial islands will possess an array of luxury villas, hotels and houses, accommodating wealthy tourists and Dubai's rich. British footballer David Beckham and Oscar-winning actor Brad Pitt are among the celebrities who have invested on the islands.
From an urban designer's point of view, the reclamation in Dubai can hardly be justified because it does not benefit the public as a whole, but only the wealthy. Some argue the success of the project can be judged by Dubai's economic gain versus its ecological loss. Let's take a look at how the Palm Islands project came about.
The beauty of the palm tree
The palm-inspired shape of the islands is a good design, according to Stefan Al, Urban Design Programme Director at the University of Hong Kong. 'If you want to raise property values, you need as much beachfront as possible,' he says.
Properties with a sea view or by the beach sell at a higher price, and the palm-tree shape creates maximum beachfront area. The three new islands add additional waterfront to the country's natural coastline.
In an interview with Reuters, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, ex-chairman of Nakheel's parent company Dubai World, said the coastline would be extended to 1,200km from the original 60km.
But Al says reclamation can be counterproductive because newly reclaimed land can disrupt ocean currents. As a result, seawater will erode beaches on the original coastline. The overall beachfront area may end up decreasing.
The marine ecology of Dubai
From the start of the project in 2001 until 2005, 1.65 billion cubic metres of sand and 87 million tonnes of rock were shifted, Reuters reported. This means a larger amount of sand and rocks will have been dredged since then.
Environmentalists argue that the dredging will inevitably damage Dubai's coral reefs and the habitats of animals such as turtles.
But Sulayem, a regular scuba diver in the region, told Reuters that the bottom of the sea was little more than desert. The company, he said, was creating an environment from scratch.
Surrounding each island, Nakheel is building a crescent-shaped breakwater to stop strong currents directly hitting the core island. The breakwater, an environmental scientist at Nakheel implied, would provide a shelter for many native species. He said he had spotted more sharks, dolphins and manta rays in the area within it than outside. His words were published as a rebuttal note on Mongabay, rated as one of the top 15 environmental websites by Time.
But urban designer Al doubts that this would be the case because it takes a long time for an ecosphere to take shape. 'The ecological system has been formed over a timescale of centuries. It doesn't get rebuilt overnight,' he says.
The economic perspective
The ultimate goal of the Palm Islands project is to bring prosperity to Dubai's economy. One way to do this is through tourism. But due to the 2008 global economic downturn, the annual growth rate of hotel guests in Dubai dropped from 8.3 per cent in 2008 to 0.68 per cent in 2009, according to Government of Dubai tourism statistics. Nevertheless, 28 more hotels opened at the end of 2009 on Palm Jumeirah's crescent.
The construction of property on the islands all happened very quickly. The development failed to recognise falling demand in the property market and the poor economic outlook. Many houses and apartments were built while very few people were actually buying due to the dire economy.
Al has a close friend who lives in Dubai. His friend says there are many ghost towers - empty houses with no owners. The situation, he says, is what is commonly known as a planning disaster.
In 2009, Nakheel received a US$8.9 billion bailout from the Dubai government. And the construction of the two remaining islands, Palm Jebel Ali and Palm Deira, has been put on hold indefinitely.
The company has recently restarted a retail project on Palm Jumeirah called The Pointe. Nakheel is negotiating with banks, hoping to raise at least US$82 million, according to Bloomberg. If successful, this will be the first development on the island since the bailout.
Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has proposed 25 new sites for reclamation to create a land bank. The list includes a man-made island.
The Development Bureau said they could not confirm that all the proposed reclamation sites would be used only for housing. The bureau said it had an open mind when it came to the idea of using the sites for unpopular facilities such as oil depots and factories. The original industrial land, therefore, could be freed for other urban development.
The plan has drawn criticism from environmental group Green Power. The group is worried that coastal reclamation may worsen the heat island effect, leading to higher energy consumption due to a greater need for air-conditioning.
Robin Lee Kui-biu of the bureau's civil engineering office said the proposed man-made island near Cheung Chau would be a difficult project since the transport infrastructure would have to be built from scratch. However, he said, the problem could be solved as the project progressed over time.
Veteran civil engineer and former vice-chairman of the Town Planning Board Greg Wong Chak-yan said such a venture was technically feasible but not necessary at this stage.
June 2001 - The construction of Palm Jumeirah Island begins
October 2002 - Construction begins on Palm Jebel Ali
November 2004 - The construction of Palm Deira is started
November 2006 - The first residential unit on Palm Jumeirah is handed over
October 2007 - As many as 500 families have already moved onto Palm Jumeirah. Construction on the island is 75 per cent complete
Late 2008 - The global financial crisis takes place
December 2009 - Nakheel receives a US$8.9 billion bailout from the Dubai government
End of 2009 - 28 hotels on the crescent are opened
January 2012 - Nakheel starts negotiations with banks for the first project on Palm Jumeirah since the bailout
Voices: What people are saying
'It has been detrimental for the natural environment of the Dubai coast, especially at the place and location of the first Palm island'
Frederic Launay, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature office in the United Arab Emirates
'The bottom of the sea in Dubai is like a desert. I used to scuba dive there and there's no real significant amounts of coral, few rocks. It's flat and sandy, with no life basically and not a habitable area for fish'
Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, ex-chairman of Nakheel's parent company
'Palm Jebel Ali won't be completed any time soon. It's a long-term project'
Ali Rashid Ahmad Lootah, chairman of Nakheel
'Whether the project turns out to be successful, it's very hard to say. It may pick up. It may not'
Stefan Al, Urban Design Programme Director at the University of Hong Kong