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Carrie Lam's policy address 2018

Too early to predict doom for Hong Kong’s massive plan to reclaim land for housing, construction experts say

  • Without any detailed studies and assessments, it is strange there are predictions of disaster for scheme to create 1,700 hectares of land, engineers say
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2018, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 October, 2018, 11:01pm

Engineers and construction experts say it is premature to predict disaster and doom for the Hong Kong government’s massive plan to build a gleaming metropolis on several artificial islands.

Some worry the reclaimed land might sink, while others fear that climate change, extreme weather and towering waves could wreak havoc on the Lantau Tomorrow Vision project unveiled by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor earlier this month.

The project is expected to create 1,700 hectares of land off the east coast of Lantau and house 1.1 million people, with the first residents moving in by 2032 if all goes according to plan.

Experts said that without detailed studies and assessments, it was too early to tell what might go wrong.

“There haven’t even been any preliminary designs, so it’s strange that there are already predictions about 10-metre-high waves,” said Edwin Chung Kwok-fai, vice-president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, who has been involved in reclamation projects for more than 30 years.

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“But even if the height of waves was an issue, it’s not something that would make the project infeasible. You can always build wave breakers, like we have done with High Island Reservoir.”

Wave breakers are huge concrete barriers placed along the coast to weaken the impact of tall, forceful waves.

Charles Ng Wang-wai, chair professor of civil and environmental engineering at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said concerns about rising sea levels due to climate change were nothing short of “excessive” and “absurd”.

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He pointed to data from the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which indicated that Hong Kong sea levels would rise 0.6 metres by the middle of this century and surpass one metre by the end of the century.

“These are not major considerations in my opinion,” Ng said. “If a two-metre sea wall isn’t high enough, then you build one that’s four metres high. What’s the big deal?”

Engineers noted that reclamation was one of the most mature methods used worldwide for decades to create new land. It helped tiny city state Singapore grow 24 per cent, adding 13,800 hectares, while Macau expanded a staggering 160 per cent, adding 1,900 hectares.

But large-scale reclamation has not been without controversy.

Kansai International Airport, Japan’s third busiest airport, is sinking faster than expected.

Built on a 516-hectare artificial island and opened in 1994, it was projected to settle by no more than 11.5 metres over 50 years due to a thick layer of soft sand below. But at least five monitoring points have already sunk by nearly 12 metres.

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Chau Kam-tim, chair professor of geotechnical engineering at Polytechnic University, said without details about the design and method of building the Lantau metropolis, it would be difficult to foresee the challenges ahead.

“Subsidence could be an issue but it depends on the layer of silt at the bottom of the sea, which in Hong Kong, is not very thick,” he said.

Environmental concerns have prompted some governments, including in mainland China and Indonesia, to pull back on reclamation projects.

China’s State Oceanic Administration said it would stop approving reclamation projects initiated by local authorities this year, though key defence and infrastructure projects planned by the central government would still go ahead. According to latest available data, China reclaimed some 5,779 hectares in 2017, 63 per cent less than in 2013.

The Indonesian government, citing environmental concerns, scrapped permits earlier this year for developers to build 13 out of 17 planned islets in Jakarta Bay.

Where reclamation projects are ongoing elsewhere in the region, including in Malaysia and the Philippines, it has become increasingly difficult and costly to obtain marine sand, as several countries have banned its export.

But experts believe it will not be too difficult for the Lantau project to get sand supplies, especially from the nearby Pearl River Delta.

In engineering, anything can be done if you have time and money
Edwin Chung, Hong Kong Institution of Engineers vice-president

Former director of planning Ling Kar-kan suggested using recyclable construction waste as a cheaper alternative, pointing out that Hong Kong produced about 7.5 million cubic metres of construction waste a year, enough for 60 hectares of reclaimed land.

Chung, of the Institution of Engineers, said the technical details of the Lantau project were not the most difficult aspects.

“In engineering, anything can be done if you have time and money,” he said. “The most difficult thing is whether the government can convince the public to give the green light.”

Others insisted that technical feasibility was not the main issue.

“I don’t have any doubt about the capability of engineers, they can get us to Mars,” said Augustine Ng Wah-keung, a former assistant director of planning for the government.

He thought the plan was flawed from a long-term planners’ perspective. The steep price tag and long time frame left little room for flexibility in the event of an economic recession or unexpected crisis.

“If a strategic plan does not allow for flexibility then it’s a bad plan … because economic conditions and demand for land are always cyclical,” Ng said.

He recalled economic shocks in the wake of the 1997-98 Asian Financial Crisis and the 2003 Sars outbreak, which caused property prices to tank and housing supply to dwindle.

“Once you start pouring the first bucket of fill, there is no return,” Ng said.

Additional reporting by Shirley Zhao