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.
Another environmental consultant for the airport Bernd Würsig supports Jefferson using the example of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in the 1930s. There was tremendous impact on the sea environment at the time including extensive underwater exploration and side reclamation in addition to the construction of the massive pillars that support the bridge.
With better enforcement of environmental regulations that cleared up the San Francisco Bay area’s water quality in the mid 1980s, Würsig said, the Bottle-nosed dolphin returned to San Francisco Bay, to be followed in 2008 by harbor porpoises as well.
Thomas Tue, the general director of Hong Hong Kong’s Eco Association, who has made a crusade of saving the dolphins, thinks what Jefferson said is just a prediction, belied by the incontrovertible fact that land reclamation is snatching away dolphin habitat.
“After the construction of The Hong Kong Zhuhai Macao Bridge, the number of dolphins has already dropped 60 percent in total,” he says, pointing out the third runway construction will take seven years.
“Because sea is their (dolphins) only home, seven years of construction is not a short period of time,” he added. It is harder to find dolphin now, especially the islands of The Brothers and Lung Kwu Chau. So he has no choice but go farther to the west of Lantau Island to find them.
Tue and many others doubt the need for a new runway. The current two, he says, are not being fully used and that 17 scheduled flights could be possibility added if the airport could use the space wisely.
In any case, the return of the dolphins, runway or no runway, is problematical because of the water quality in the Hong Kong harbor. He says compared to other regions like California the water quality of Hong Kong is bad. Untreated sewage has poured into the harbor for decades, although a new system is supposed ameliorate the problems Nonetheless, more than 400,000 vessels arrived and left the port in 2011 including cargo ships, public ferries, luxury yachts and huge container ships. Shipping is a key polluter in a city where according research by University of Hong Kong academicians, air pollution kills about 3,200 people every year.
Simon Ng of the Civic Exchange think-tank blamed the pollution, which often shrouds the city's dramatic skyline in thick smog, for driving away talent.
In 2002, Tue said, a dead baby dolphin corpse was found near Hoi Ma Wan Marine Park, and no artificial turf injuries were obviously observed. The falling numbers of the dolphin means there must be far more of them.
“It is probably the dolphin mother was contaminated by the polluted water and led to the tragedy,” Tue says.
But if it is imperative to build the third runway, he says the government should first prioritize how to probably settle down the dolphins within the 7-year construction period.
“To ensure that they have got a proper protection is the most important part,” Tue concluded.
Airis Lin is an Asia Sentinel summer intern.