In 1991, Hong Kong set out to make history with its gleaming Norman Foster-designed international airport by leveling two islets off the tip of Lantau Island totaling 4 sq km and reclaiming 9.38 sq. km of the adjacent seabed.
The airport opened in 1998, record time for construction of such a massive project, which included the biggest enclosed terminal in the world at the time. Since then, travelers on the fast, smooth and silent airport train can look out the windows and see the airport complex continue to expand into the surrounding waters to include a forest of office buildings, hotels and other structures.
Today, the government is seeking permission to build a third runway, reclaiming 650 hectares more of land to the north of the existing airport island, about 40 percent of which falls on an area of what are described as contaminated mud pits.
That throws into stark relief the conflict stretching back deep into colonial history between the environment and development. In most cases, development has won with a colonial government whose pursuit of profit for the companies doing business here was legendary.
Today this is highlighted by the presence of rare Chinese white dolphins in the area where the new runway is likely to go. And while the presence of a handful of dolphins might seem minor, they are – to mix a metaphor – canaries in the mine.
The Chinese white dolphins are the only ones in the world, first discovered in the Pearl River Delta region in the 17 century. According to a survey by the Hong Kong Conservation Society, their numbers have dropped steadily because of the destruction of their habitat – by the airport and its surrounding infrastructure – and by increasingly polluted waters. In Hong Kong, there were 158 in 2003 but only 61 in 2012.
According to the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), the construction of the third runway is only part of the problem. As the runway expands, increasingly congested marine traffic in the narrowed channel will threaten their survival.
Construction, according to the WWF, is expected to heavily damage more than 1,600 hectares of seabed through dredging and dumping works, including the 650 ha. of land reclamation. The proposed runway location is the heart of the Chinese white dolphin habitat: Sha Chau, Lung Kwu Chau and southwest of Lantau Island.
A maximum estimated 240 vessels per day during the construction period and 400 daily vessels in the neighboring region will heavily affect the ecology. The WWF says the serious noise and water pollution impact the food chain and worsen sea water quality, the worst case the extinction of the sea animals.
In answer, the airport authority shares a video of Thomas Jefferson, a consultant who produced the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), who says he believes the negative impacts will disappear after the construction period. “We expect the dolphins will most likely to move back into the area,” he says.
During the final period of the airport construction, Jefferson said, the number of dolphins fell, but they rose again in 1998 after the construction was finished.