Harbour protection pioneer Winston Chu Ka-sun says the iconic waterway will remain under threat from further reclamation until the government opens up the New Territories for development.
Chu said while the current ordinance banning reclamation except in special circumstances offered some protection, the government would always be tempted to carry out further infill projects as it was the easy option.
"In future years there is no assurance the government won't change its policy. There will always be a great temptation to reclaim land in the harbour," he said, adding that preventing further reclamation demanded "constant vigilance".
Chu was speaking yesterday after presenting documents related to the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance and the Save Our Harbour campaign to the Hong Kong Maritime Museum.
The documents include the original assent certificate signed on June 27, 1997, by the last attorney general, Jeremy Matthews, by which the Protection of the Harbour Bill was enacted.
Chu said he believed one of the factors that could see the government trying to overturn the harbour protection law would be the need for extra land to accommodate Hong Kong's growing population.
"We're looking at a population in Hong Kong of 10 million," Chu said. "That's an extra 2.5 million people."
He said it didn't matter whether this number was reached in "2030, 2050 or 2070", the question remained: "Where do you put them all?"
The answer was to develop the New Territories instead of further harbour reclamation, Chu said. But because infilling the sea was easier than tackling land development issues, the harbour would remain under threat until the New Territories Ordinance was "officially repealed", he said.
If this law was repealed, it would make land ownership in the New Territories "exactly the same as every other part of Hong Kong and Kowloon".
He pointed out that land administration in the New Territories dates from the original 1899 ordinance, which provides legal support to Chinese landowning customs and gives rights to traditional landholding institutions.
Paul Zimmerman, chief executive of Designing Hong Kong, agreed the government could change its current policy of limiting reclamation in the longer term. "The temptation will always be there," he said.
"The only protection [against such a change] is the hearts and minds of the community," Zimmerman said, pointing out that public polls have been against further reclamation.
Despite such public opposition, government officials recently snubbed moves to put Victoria Harbour forward as a potential Unesco World Heritage site.
"Reclamation is easy - just dump a whole bunch of rocks," Zimmerman said. Developing land-based sites was, he said, a "lengthy process. It's harder work. People complain."