Wetland or Wasteland? Doubts raised over new development plan for Lantau

Photo by Cecile Gamst Berg

As the government releases new development plan for Lantau, doubts are being raised over the sustainability and environmental protection offered.

Last month, the government released its development plan for Lantau.
The “Sustainable Lantau Blueprint” (herein “the Blueprint”) is part of the government’s overall development plan for Hong Kong beyond 2030.

Speaking at the press conference last month, Secretary for Development Eric Ma said that the Blueprint will be a fine balance between development and conservation.

Housing and economic developments will be focused in the northern part of the island. Planned projects include the Tung Chung New Town Extension, which involves the addition of two new railway stations; the Siu Ho Wan Development, a commercial and employment platform near the airport. The most controversial of all is the East Lantau Metropolis (ELM). This reclamation project aims to create a third core business district in addition to Central and Kowloon. The role played by South Lantau in conservation and cultural- and eco-tourism is to be continued and strengthened. 

The government expects the Blueprint to create homes for 700,000 to 1 million people and provide 470,000 jobs as well as better transport links and increased public services.

There will be four marine parks and rural conservation projects in The Brothers (Mo To Chau) North of Lantau, Soko Islands to the South of Lantau and the Southwest Marine Park. About $30 million has so far been earmarked to support nature conservation projects and work against illegal dumping.

However, not everyone is convinced that the Blueprint will make Lantau sustainable. Nonprofit conservation groups such Designing Hong Kong and Greenpeace Hong Kong have expressed a number of concerns about foreseeable damage to the environment. The destruction of mountainous region by building roads; loss of cultural heritage in Mui Wo Village; and the monetary and environmental cost of reclaiming an entire island to build the ELM are raised amongst others.

conservationists claim to have observed dumping on the Pui O wetlands.

Furthermore, conservationists claim to have observed dumping on the Pui O wetlands, a coastal protection area. According to the Hong Kong Planning and Standards Guidelines, the current conservation status implies that efforts should be made to “retain the natural coastlines and the sensitive coastal natural environment…with a minimum of built development.”

Eric Kwok-Ping, member of the Islands District Council and Paul Zimmerman, district councillor for Pok Fu Lam and CEO of Designing Hong Kong, both trace the recent dumping on Pui O wetlands back to a legal loophole in the regulation of the construction process.

According to Zimmerman, “the government is unable to stop it because the laws are not in place and they lack enforcement powers.”

In fact, the Blueprint has identified the occasional illegal dumping of construction waste near Pui O beach as a problem. It states that “the government has formed an inter-departmental working group on fly-tipping control and will take a proactive role to strengthen measures against illegal dumping of construction waste”.

But time is running out. Even if the government was now able to enforce legal powers upon private developers, Kwok-Ping estimates this would take “10-20 years, but there’d be no wetland by then.”

it will take 10-20 years, but there’d be no wetland by then

So what are the solutions? Halting construction would not be economically viable for the developer, so Kwok-Ping suggests setting up “a fund to recover the land for conservation.”

Speaking on the Blueprint in its entirety, Zimmerman thinks the conservation proposals need to be much stronger for such a major development. “Lantau has very little flat land and any work you’re going to do will impede on conservation areas,” he explains. “If you promise all development will be sustainable you have to get very specific. From the get go you need to establish the traffic impacts on building roads and slope stabilisation impacts.”

Likewise, Kwok-Ping views potential roads as an interference with the region’s nature. He suggests, “we can use ferries because we are islands. They are a good means of transportation that can help to conserve the countryside.”

This is not the first time the developments have received public criticism. The initial proposal was released in October 2016 and was taken to the Lantau community for a litmus test. Although the official report states, “the proposed Lantau Development is considered generally supported by the public”, the breakdown of votes and comments told a different story. 

The initiatives are currently waiting on approval of funding from the Legislative Council in order to set up the Sustainable Lantau Office to begin implementation of the blueprint.

Expected timeline

2018 – Extension of Hong Kong Disneyland Resort

2018 – Completion of mountain bike trail network and mountain bike training ground in Mui Wo

2020 – Completion of North Commercial District on Airport Island

2030 – Lantau population reaches 300,000.

2030 – Completion of Tung Chung New Town Extension, Tung Chung River Park Siu Ho Wan developments, Tai O Nature and Cultural Heritage District

2030+ – East Lantau Metropolis.