Island of fear: massive reclamation off Lantau would be a disaster in age of climate change and sea-level rises

Lam Chiu Ying says even without considering the flooding risks of this proposition, the questionable population projection and mind-boggling costs of the construction alone should deter Hong Kong from making this unnecessary mistake

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2018, 4:58pm

The Task Force on Land Supply, a team appointed by the Hong Kong government to spearhead the city’s desperate search for land, lists a 1,000-hectare artificial island east of Lantau as a land option, housing up to 700,000 people. Our Hong Kong Foundation has lately advocated even more grandiose figures of 2,200 hectares and 1.1 million people, as if they constitute the panacea for all of Hong Kong problems, housing included.

But it will take more than a decade to get an island-town built. The wait is far too long for those living in tiny, stuffy subdivided flats. We must not let the island idea distract us from our effort to house the poor in the near term.

Artificial island is a chance to re-imagine Hong Kong

More importantly, two other questions must be answered. First, is an artificial island really the answer to Hong Kong’s housing woes?

Second, in this age of climate change and rising sea levels, is it wise to create an island through large-scale reclamation? Settling one million people on an artificial island exposed to the elements is a serious government responsibility. Furthermore, families who spend their life savings to buy a private flat expect their property to be protected so it could be handed down to future generations.

The government has a duty to protect both lives and property. As a matter of due diligence, it must look far ahead into the future and thoroughly examine all possible scenarios that are potentially hazardous to life and detrimental to the asset value of properties. Any decision must not be rushed.

What Kansai airport flooding can teach Hong Kong about reclamation

The idea of an artificial island between Hong Kong Island and Lantau has been floated for decades. It has been the pet subject of generations of engineers. Yet, nothing has happened so far for two simple reasons: there is no real need for it, and the government does not have the money for it.

Is there now a need for it? No.

Where will these 9 million come from? Young couples today are not having as many babies as before

The government’s proposal for such massive reclamation was premised on an unlikely population projection figure published in its Hong Kong 2030 Plus development blueprint. According to the government, Hong Kong, now a city of 7.3 million, should make itself ready for a population target of 9 million.

But where will these 9 million come from? Young couples today are not having as many babies as before. In fact, the latest official projection by the Census and Statistics Department is that the population will peak at 8.22 million in 2043, which is some 800,000 fewer than the 9 million cited in 2030 Plus blueprint.

As the proposed 1,000-hectare island is expected to house up to 700,000, straightforward logic dictates that even without the artificial island, there is still spare capacity for housing on land. Thus, the 1,000-hectare island is superfluous land supply. What more a 2,200-hectare island? Only faulty logic could justify this mammoth artificial island.

Some have argued that Hong Kong needs a land reserve, but this does not stand up to scrutiny since the population is projected to decline after 2043.

Why Lantau reclamation would only breed a white elephant

Let us now look at the cost. The estimated cost of the 1,000-hectare island, including connecting roads, tunnels and railway lines, is of the order of HK$400 billion, according to the calculations by a concern group. A 2,200-hectare island is projected to cost HK$700 billion. And we have not even counted the cost of the roads on the island itself, the public housing, utilities, and community facilities such as schools and hospitals.

As significant cost overruns are now routine in Hong Kong, we are effectively looking at a likely price tag of HK$1 trillion for the artificial island proposed by Our Hong Kong Foundation. Hong Kong’s fiscal reserves stood at HK$1.1 trillion at the end of the 2017/18 financial year. If we go ahead with the project, we should be worried that all our reserves will be channelled into a single engineering project. At the least, we should be worried that resources that should be spent on education, health and social welfare would instead be used on building on an unneeded island.

Typhoon Mangkhut’s message to Hong Kong: rethink reclamation

I am meteorologist by training, so an issue close to my heart is the plight of island-states facing the prospect of sea-level rise driven by global warming. Some of these islands are even considering abandoning their homeland. Building an artificial island now to house a big population is to ignore the inevitable and deleterious threats posed by climate change.

Sea flooding is an increasing menace everywhere owing to sea-level rise. Macau was flooded last year when Typhoon Hato hit. Osaka airport suffered the same recently in Typhoon Jebi. According to the Hong Kong Observatory, high sea levels that in the past flooded Hong Kong once in 50 years would become a biennial event by the end of this century. 

Additionally, with global warming, typhoons are expected to become stronger, bringing even higher storm surges. Latest research also shows that the sea-level rise could be double that of previous projections. Things could only get worse.

A comprehensive assessment of the climate risk must precede any detailed planning for the proposed artificial island. Otherwise, we would be putting a million people in harm’s way. We would also be risking the asset value in people’s properties should sea flooding occur so frequently that the island becomes uninhabitable.

To go for a gigantic artificial island facing the open sea in a warming world is an unequivocally disastrous move.

Lam Chiu Ying is an adjunct professor in the Geography and Resource Management Department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society