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Nature Conservation

Endangered dolphins deserve better than flawed airport report

Sunday, 17 August, 2014

“Dolphins v Development” has become the overarching focus of the controversial struggle raging over Chek Lap Kok airport’s proposed third runway: just how much of a threat the development poses to the habitat of Chinese white dolphins and other marine life and land-based organisms in the area.

As a group of University of Hong Kong ecology alumni, we applied our professional knowledge of environmental conservation to review the Airport Authority Hong Kong’s Third Runway Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – in particular, the quality of the judgments about the ecological impacts on marine life and plants and animals on land.

Overall, we believe this report has several major technical deficiencies and failed to meet the standard required by the Technical Memorandum issued, under the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance, which aims to avoid, minimise and control the project’s adverse impacts on the environment.

It played down the need to conserve potentially important fish spawning and nursery water areas, and sensitive species, such as a soft coral found only in the western waters of Hong Kong, rare yellow seahorses and longtooth groupers.

Many assessment methods were inappropriate, based on limited scientific support. A minimal loss of the carrying capacity of dolphins’ habitats was predicted, but this was not supported by careful modelling. The estimated low impact on egrets was made without assessing the combined effects of multiple disturbances on birds. There were also questionable results, and mistakes in surveying the impact on fisheries.

The effectiveness of some proposed measures to mitigate the effect of the new runway was often exaggerated. It was expected dolphins will move away from the construction area but “return” once finished. Even assuming they will reappear, suggested rules for vessel speeds and volume will still be unsafe for them.

Also the new marine park, proposed as a major mitigation measure, will be designated only seven years after construction of the runway has begun. Yet the project proponent will have no jurisdiction over exactly where it will be located, or how it will be carried out. Similarly, there were misleading claims about new runway structures providing foraging grounds for birds because bird control will be enforced at the airport.

Owing to a lack of scientific support for the EIA report, and unreliable claims of the effectiveness of mitigation measures, it would be best for the Environmental Protection Department’s decision to err on the side of caution – and reject this report.

Alex Yeung, ecology alumni representative, University of Hong Kong

dynamco Aug 17th 2014 9:20am

MS Anissa WONG Sean Yee
Director of Environmental Protection
Permanent Secretary for the Environment
List of Government EIA reports rejected by her as follows:

All EIAs approved
EIA-077/2002 Permanent Aviation Fuel Facility for Hong Kong International Airport -Airport Authority Hong Kong The Court of Final Appeal ordered on 17 Jul 2006 that the decision of the Director made on 2 Aug 2002 approving the EIA report be quashed
During the tenure of Robert Law ,the EIA report which was rejected under the Ordinance in October 2000 was on the proposed Sheung Shui to Lok Ma Chau Spur Line project
Needless to say the spur line now exists

Experts slam lack of novel ideas to protect white dolphins from third runway construction

Tuesday, 19 August, 2014

Cheung Chi-fai

Government advisers express exasperation at Chek Lap Kok officials’ lack of fresh thinking on protecting dolphins if third runway is built

Government environment advisers vented their frustration yesterday at the Airport Authority’s failure to come up with “out-of-the-box ideas” to protect the threatened Chinese white dolphin during construction of the proposed third runway.

They were speaking on the last of three days’ scrutiny of the environmental impact assessment study on the runway.

“We hear nothing new. You just repeat and repeat,” said Dr Hung Wing-tat, vice-chairman of the Advisory Council on the Environment subcommittee studying the report.

“You just can’t say let [the environmental impact] study pass first and we will see what we can do. Can you invest a little bit more? And don’t always just ask the government to do things.”

Subcommittee members had been unhappy at the last meeting over the lack of measures to compensate for plans to reclaim 650 hectares of prime habitat for the shrinking dolphin population – and it emerged as the key issue again yesterday.

The meeting was the last opportunity to provide new information to the subcommittee before it makes its recommendations to the council, which will decide next month whether the report should be endorsed and what conditions to attach.

Before Hung’s criticism – which was met by silence from airport officials – Professor Nora Tam Fung-yee also vented her frustration at the authority’s performance.

She criticised it for failing to respond to members’ previous call for “out-of-the-box ideas”, such as setting up another marine park farther from the works site in southwestern Lantau.

The authority proposes opening a 2,400 hectare marine park after the runway is finished, saying dolphins that leave the area during construction will return.

Tam also queried the effectiveness of a proposal to re-route the Skypier high-speed ferries to Macau and the Pearl River Delta and lower their speed during the construction.

The measure would re-route ferries travelling to the north of Lung Kwu Chau marine park – a vital dolphin sanctuary. The authority also proposes to freeze further growth until 2023 of its ferry business that carries 2.5 million transit air passengers a year.

Authority consultant Eric Ching Ming-kam said the diversion of the ferries and their lowered speed could benefit the dolphins by reducing underwater noise without significantly reducing passenger comfort.

But Tam said the increased journey times might increase the dolphins’ exposure to noise and demanded a proper assessment.

Another member, Gary Ades, listed a number of other options, including relocating the Skypier. But his idea was rejected by the authority as not practical.

Under present plans, the new 2,400-hectare marine park would connect the existing Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau Marine Park with the planned Brothers Islands marine park.

Another consultant, Dr Thomas Jefferson, said in June that some decrease in dolphins was to be expected during construction, “but the plan and hope” was that the large marine park would draw them back.

Standard: ‘Wishful thinking’ on dolphins slammed

The Airport Authority announced four extra measures to help conserve Chinese white dolphins after work on the proposed third runway is complete.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Airport Authority announced four extra measures to help conserve Chinese white dolphins after work on the proposed third runway is complete.

That came in a meeting with an Environmental Protection Department subcommittee, which criticized the authority for “wishful thinking” that dolphins fleeing their Lantau habitat will return.

Authority general manager Peter Lee Chung-tang said traffic volume at SkyPier would be capped at 99 ferry trips per day, originally predicted to rise to 115 in 2021 and 130 in 2030.

And to be funded is a marine ecology conservation management plan for the dolphins in south Lantau waters.

Night studies will be carried out on dolphin activity and funding provided for a conservation strategy in the Pearl River Estuary. The authority submitted its environmental impact assessment report to the related subcommittee under the EPD’s Advisory Council on the Environment at the meeting, which continues tomorrow and Monday.

Dolphin specialists Thomas Jefferson and Bernd Wursig, advisers to the authority on the report, said dolphins are smart and it is believed they will return after work on the third runway is over.

But subcommittee vice chairman Hung Wing-tat, associate professor of civil and structural engineering at Polytechnic University, criticized the EIA report for lacking scientific evidence.

Hung said: “I swear it is wishful thinking. If there is a piece of scientific evidence, I will take back my words.” KENNETH LAU

SCMP: Plover Cove country park expansion could lead to showdown

from Cheung Chi-fai of the SCMP:

Officials have quietly drafted proposals to expand at least one country park that would limit the building rights of villagers.

The proposal for incorporating five enclaves into the Plover Cove Country Park in the northeastern New Territories would add 60 hectares to the 4,600- hectare park.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department plan comes just a few weeks after development minister Paul Chan Mo-po provoked a heated debate by suggesting houses might be built in the parks. The new proposal is likely to prove just as controversial.

AFCD officials say the five areas, either surrounded by or jutting into the park, are suitable for incorporation in full or in part. This would presuppose that development in the parks was not favoured. Any construction, including small houses for indigenous inhabitants, would require approval from the Country and Marine Parks Board.


Proposed 3rd runway on Chek Lap Kok creates more problems than the one that AAHK allege exists

The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AAHK)’s recent proposal to reclaim more land in the Pearl River Estuary to build a third runway has come under much flak, and perhaps rightly so. The AAHK is alleging that, based on the continued growth of air traffic volume in the past years, Chek Lap Kok’s capacity will be saturated by 2030. It seems obviously necessary to expand Chek Lap Kok, but this narrative is less appealing when one considers several other events at play: Chek Lap Kok is currently running only at about 65% capacity; neighbouring airports in Shenzhen and Guangzhou are aggressively expanding, providing fierce competition for the growth pie that is being projected; the airways around Chek Lap Kok are already congested in part because of this competition; poor economic horizon is on the horizon, which will affect airline profits; a growing market to consume internally China’s produce rather than exporting, reducing the demand for cargo shipment.

Rapidly expanding airports in Guangzhou and Shenzhen competes with Chek Lap Kok for both airspace and business. (Shenzhen Media Group)

Of course, AAHK can choose to ignore these warning signs and continue drinking the kool-aid. But they cannot ignore the very real problems that building the Third Runway is going to cause:

  • The increase in simultaneous air traffic is going to generate a lot more noise pollution, a concern for Tung Chung residents not just as annoyance but quite possibly a direct health hazard.
  • The reclamation work required for the runway expansion is huge, and will severely impact pink dolphins native to the Pearl River Estuary. This concern has already been thrown out of the window during the proposals for building the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge and should not be ignored again.
  • The expansion comes into a direct conflict of interest with Shenzhen’s cargo shipping network. Height restrictions on cargo ships passing through shipping channels in the vicinity of the airway will come into play, which will deeply displease Shenzhen’s port development authorities. Incidentally, they are already fuming over a failed proposal to expand the waterways near Chek Lap Kok, which the Hong Kong government rejected on precisely the environmental concerns for the pink dolphins that they themselves now ignore; Shenzhen officials see this slight as Hong Kong’s tactics to stave off competition.

AAHK’s representative saw fit to address only the issue of cargo shipping space, and even there, all there is is a single vague assurance: “putting in place an appropriate administrative arrangement between the relevant authorities in Hong Kong and Shenzhen”; no evidence that they have given the real problems substantial thought.

James Middleton makes a simple and salient point: it would be easier and cheaper to soundproof every single Tung Chung residence and change Chek Lap Kok’s from an 18-h to a 24-h airport, than to build a new runway.

It's probably easier to soundproof all apartments in Tung Chung than to build a third runway. (Square Foot)

Decision makers would do well to step back from dreaming of grand projects and justifying their legitimacy with visions of problems, while ignoring the real problems they would cause.

Click here for more coverage on this issue:

Activist puts case for artificial beach review

Published on South China Morning Post (

Home > Activist puts case for artificial beach review

Activist puts case for artificial beach review

Tuesday, 13 August, 2013, 12:00am

NewsHong Kong

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Ho Loy (centre) with other alliance members. Photo: David Wong


Austin Chiu

Save Lung Mei Alliance member asks High Court to scrutinise government decision on project

A green activist has asked the High Court to adopt “heightened scrutiny” of a government decision to build a beach in Tai Po that she says is likely to endanger the life of a rare seahorse.

Ho Loy is seeking leave for a judicial review in order to halt the artificial beach project at Lung Mei, where spotted seahorses, classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, have been seen.

Ho, a member of the Save Lung Mei Alliance, complained that the director of the Environmental Protection Department and the Chief Executive in Council failed to exercise their discretion to suspend or cancel an environmental permit granted to the department after the sightings were recorded. Nicholas Cooney SC, for Ho, said the court should adopt heightened scrutiny of the government decision because this case involved “the most worthwhile goal” of protecting the ecology.

Cooney compared the case to a high-profile judicial review mounted by Victoria Harbour conservationists against controversial Central reclamation in 2004.

When the department applied for the permit in 2010, it provided “misleading, wrong, incomplete or false” information, he said. He noted spotted seahorses were first seen at Lung Mei in 2009, a year after approval of an environmental impact assessment report on the project.

The report was flawed, however, because a study had found the rare species existed in waters nearby, he said. This meant an assessment of the impact on the seahorse should have been done at Lung Mei even though there was no sighting of it at that time.

The report said Lung Mei had “mainly low-quality habitats” that did not appear to be “critical or unique habitats for species of conservation importance”, nor did it support significant populations of such species.

The court heard that the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department recorded two sightings of spotted seahorses at Lung Mei this year and 27 sightings in four other locations along Tolo Harbour.

“Now we know the seahorses are at Lung Mei, there is or likely to be prejudice to their health and well-being,” Cooney said.

Benjamin Yu SC, for the EPD director, said it was too late for Ho to challenge the report and the permit, which should have been challenged by 2010.

“It cannot be open to the applicant [Ho] to argue that there was information insufficiency at the time of the granting of the environmental permit. There is a time limit,” Yu said.

He said the report did not include inaccurate information because “there was no statement that there will not be species of conservation importance in the future”.

Yu also pointed to evidence from the agriculture department that the biodiversity and number of species found at Lung Mei had not changed significantly since the report was issued in 2008.

Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung, of the Court of First Instance, reserved his decision.

Outside court, Ho said she obtained legal aid on Friday. The alliance had raised HK$160,000 from the public since it voiced concerns that she might not be able to secure legal aid.


Lung Mei beach

Source URL (retrieved on Aug 13th 2013, 9:40am):

Lung Mei activist confident on judicial review for artificial beach plan

Thursday, 08 August, 2013, 3:35pm

NewsHong Kong


Ernest Kao

The first hearing for a judicial review request over the government’s decision to allow an artificial beach near Tai Po is to begin as early as Monday morning, says an activist group.

Ho Loy, a member of Save Lung Mei Alliance who is asking the court to stop beach construction, had applied for leave for judicial review at the High Court in June on grounds of a flawed environmental impact assessment by the government.

“We are very confident that the court will grant leave to us as all our indications have been based on pure science and fact,” said Ho, who is filing the request under her name. “I am sure the court will make a fair and impartial judgment.”

Ho, whose separate application for legal aid has yet to be approved, said she expected the legal campaign to be prolonged but “winnable” and expected initial legal fees to be upwards of about HK$200,000. She said she did not expect a result until after September.

“We had intended to push for a later court date, but lawyers from the opposition refused and we are now being forced to appear before court next week,” Ho said. “If the court case takes longer, we do expect legal fees to increase…possibly to about HK$1 million or more.”

The alliance on Thursday called on supporters to donate HK$300 each for the legal campaign. It said it hoped to gather at least 1,000 donations.

Ho is also asking the court to order new environmental assessments for the project, which began in June. The assessments would evaluate measures to protect nearly 200 marine species said to inhabit the site, including the rare Hippocampus kuda species of spotted seahorse.

A 200-metre artificial beach is to be built on the site for HK$200 million.

But a marine and ecological impact assessment by the Civil Engineering and Development Department in 2006 concluded that Lung Mei “contained mainly low-quality habitats”. The assessment was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Department.

“The environmental assessments were not serious, not to mention the huge amount of conflict of interest,” said Roy Tam Hoi-ping of Green Sense. “Impact assessments paid for by the government or by developers can never be conducted independently.”

Alliance member Paul Zimmerman said: “If we cannot raise enough money then Loy will have to make the decision whether she wants to continue or not… but this will be better judged after the first court hearings and when the legal aid application has been completed.”


Lung Mei beach

Source URL (retrieved on Aug 8th 2013, 5:55pm):

Force of nature

Force of nature

A government plan to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity could offer the last best hope for Hong Kong’s wildlife, writes Martin Williams

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· Lung Mei, in Tai Po, where the government’s plan to build an artificial beach has attracted opposition from environment activists. Photos: Martin Williams; SCMP Pictures; Royal HK Police; Antony Dickson

On learning that the government is preparing a biodiversity strategy and action plan, to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity established by the United Nations in the early 1990s, you would be forgiven for wondering whether it isn’t all a bit late. After all, there is hardly a plant or animal to be seen in Hong Kong’s urban areas.

There does, however, remain an extensive countryside home to a wealth of plant and animal species that is rivalled by few – if any – cities worldwide. Hong Kong boasts more than 3,000 species of flowering plants, some 260 species of butterflies and just over 500 bird species. There are creatures that are unique to Hong Kong, such as Romer’s tree frog and the Hong Kong paradise fish. The world’s pinkest dolphins inhabit our waters, the blackfaced spoonbill is among our globally endangered birds and the SAR may be the sole remaining refuge of the wild golden coin turtle.

Some 40 per cent of Hong Kong is designated as protected country park – more, reportedly, than in any other territory. But against this, a host of developments threatens places as far and wide as Yi O and Tung Chung Bay, on Lantau, and Lung Mei and Pak Sha O, in the eastern New Territories.

It seems almost every week brings fresh reports of jeopardy. News emerged last month, for example, that a planned housing project could destroy wetlands at Nam Sang Wai, near Mai Po, and that a rare fish – the rose bitterling – could be eliminated in the area where the government hopes to build Fanling North new town.

To gauge the future prospects for Hong Kong’s wildlife, Post Magazine spoke to four prominent local conservationists. Each expressed concerns but admitted the biodiversity strategy holds promise. Indeed, the expert views suggest the strategy may be the last best hope for Hong Kong’s wildlife and wild places.

THOUSANDS OF YEARS AGO, Hong Kong was covered with subtropical forests within which roamed leopards, tigers, Asiatic wild dogs and, probably, elephants and rhinoceros. About 6,000 years ago, humans began transforming the landscape, hunting and felling trees. Later came farmers who cleared swathes of land to grow rice and other crops.

By 1841, when Hong Kong Island was ceded to the British, there were only fragments of forest left amid extensive grassy slopes, while the island itself was described as a “barren rock”. Though leopards and wild dogs still lived here, and tigers occasionally terrorised villages, by the middle of the 20th century they had all vanished from the territory.

During the second half of the 1800s and early last century, the government devoted considerable resources to planting trees on Hong Kong Island. One key reason was to safeguard water supplies for the growing colony: forests act like sponges, storing rainwater and releasing it later, and reduce erosion and silting of reservoirs. Similar reforestation efforts were implemented across much of Hong Kong after the addition of the New Territories, in 1898. By the early 1960s, according to biologist Stella Thrower, “Officers of the Agriculture and Fisheries Department, staff of the University of Hong Kong and members of amateur naturalist groups had all clearly recognised the urgent need for both conservation of wild life and for planned, controlled development of the countryside as an outdoor recreational resource.”

This led to the establishment of 21 country parks in the late 70s.

Thrower credits Murray MacLehose, the then governor of Hong Kong, as being among the few clear-sighted men who promoted the country parks “against a background of apathy and vested interest”.

Although the aims of the country park system included safeguarding vegetation and wildlife, the main intention was “to protect drainage basins, not conserve biodiversity”, says David Dudgeon, chair professor in ecology and biodiversity at HKU. With 30 years’ experience in studying Hong Kong wildlife, Dudgeon has witnessed many changes in rural areas, as well as in government thinking.

“In essence, the attitude until 2000 was: if we leave things alone, everything will be all right,” says Dudgeon. “Hong Kong was enforcing laws on hunting and it was a very substantial achievement to protect 40 per cent of the land area from development, which would inadvertently protect biodiversity. But there was no coherent conservation policy.”

Proactive conservation work was instigated, however, at Mai Po Marshes, on the shore of Deep Bay. Mai Po mainly comprises traditional shrimp ponds and in the late 70s these appeared threatened by mangrove clearances and nearby housing developments, leading to the government designating the area a Site of Special Scientific Interest. In 1981, WWF Hong Kong was established and, two years later, it began managing Mai Po Marshes Nature Reserve and Education Centre.

Dr Michael Lau Wai-neng was among the early members of the Mai Po staff, working there from 1987 to 1991. After a lengthy stint as conservationist with Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, he rejoined WWF Hong Kong in 2011 as senior head of its Local Biodiversity and Regional Wetlands Programme.

“In the past, a handful of non-governmental organisations were involved in conservation and each had a major theme,” he says. “Now, some have a specific focus.”

Lau says that, from an emphasis on protecting plants and animals, there has been a shift towards linking biodiversity with quality of life.

“I think there’s a growing number of people who are concerned,” he says. “But it’s still not high enough.”

The approach to Mai Po has, likewise, become broader: “Its future relies not only on Deep Bay, but also on wetland reserves in [mainland] China,” says Lau, explaining that the reserves lie on a flyway travelled by migratory birds – which is why WWF Hong Kong has been running a wetland management training programme for reserve staff from the mainland and partners with several key wetland reserves across south China to enhance the value of these sites for both migratory birds and local communities.

Thirty years after management work began, however, Mai Po still faces threats, such as developments on both the Hong Kong and Shenzhen sides of Deep Bay, and even the conversion of the margins of neighbouring fish ponds from grass to concrete and plastic sheeting, which reduces habitat for the insects birds feed on.

“This is the reality,” says Lau. “We need to try harder and do more.”

Assessing the evolution of conservation in Hong Kong, independent ecologist Dr Andy Cornish says a certain stage was reached with the establishment of the country park and marine park systems and with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Ordinance enacted in 1997, but that there have been only one or two significant developments since then.

“There’s too much reliance on EIAs, which are not a conservation tool but a system to facilitate development,” he says. Kong governor Murray MacLehose in Tai Po, in 1976.Cornish is a keen scuba diver and has witnessed a marked decline in marine life, which received almost no protection until 1996, when Hong Kong’s only marine reserve and four of the current five marine parks were established.

“Intensive fishing pressure has affected all parts of Hong Kong,” says Cornish. “Commercial catches peaked in the 1980s and have declined since, along with the large fish.”

A report from the 1940s tells of sharks being caught year round and there are old photos of eagle rays caught in Victoria Harbour. An elderly lady who spoke to Cornish told him there used to be a beach where the Kwai Chung Container Terminal now stands and that she remembers seeing seahorses there.

“There are sliding baselines – people’s expectations are based primarily on experiences [they have] as they are growing up,” says Cornish. “Now, we see 5cm rabbit fish and gobies caught in the harbour, so it’s harder to motivate people, as expectations are low.”

The Chinese white dolphin, found off north and west Lantau, has become a flagship species for Hong Kong’s marine life.

“The dolphins are an interesting case study,” says Cornish. “They have received more attention than any other marine species – they’re a protected species and a lot of attention is given to them in environmental impact assessments, and there was a rather vague conservation plan from the government. And despite all this, we are losing this animal. Numbers have dropped off a cliff, with a 50 per cent decline in 10 years.”

Cornish says that even though green groups warned the dolphin numbers would decline if the pressure was piled on, complacency set in as the first 10 years of monitoring indicated the population was fairly stable. Now there are plans for four reclamations in the dolphins’ habitat – including the one for the third runway at Chek Lap Kok airport – which will cover an area the size of 650 football fields.

“We need to think about a moratorium on development in western waters, until we understand why numbers are dropping, and have a recovery plan in place,” he says.

“It’s as if Hong Kong’s trying to kill all the dolphins,” says Dickson Wong Chi-chun, who works at the Ho Koon Nature Education cum Astronomical Centre, in Tsuen Wan, and is a spokesman for the Hong Kong Wildlife Forum, which played a pivotal role in opposing plans to build an artificial beach at Lung Mei, in Tai Po. “I was at a forum on reclamation and engineers said they would build an ecologically sound marine surface. It was weird thinking; I don’t know why they claim expertise when they know nothing about dolphins.

“The government lacks any kind of vision,” he says. “There’s no longterm conservation policy.”

While furious at the government’s refusal to abandon plans for the beach, Wong retains a broader vision, and sees two main issues facing Hong Kong wildlife: loss of marine resources and valuable agricultural land being abandoned and transformed.

“There’s no future for Hong Kong, it seems,” Wong says. “If you try to be reasonable, the government ignores you. So you become more vociferous, and society as a whole is not harmonious.”

Like Lau, Wong believes attitudes are changing in Hong Kong, with more people aware that it is not sustainable to have ever more buildings or to eliminate agricultural land. But the background of apathy and vested interests that Thrower wrote of still exists.

Post Magazine tried to contact two prominent advocates of development: Hopewell Holdings chairman Gordon Wu Ying-sheung and the former legislator who, on the Hong Kong Institution of Engineer’s website, is grandly titled “Ir Dr The Hon Raymond Ho Chung-tai”, but neither replied. They have, however, made previous comments in public.

For instance, Wu has been quoted as saying, “Those environmental groups are crazy. You can’t force everyone to like birds even though you like them,” and has even claimed that after the airport was built the number of Chinese white dolphins actually increased.

“They [Chinese white dolphins] will become extinct only if they are yummy, because the whole world will start catching them. How will something be endangered if it is not tasty?” he asked.

Although annual expenditure on capital works surged to HK$62.3 billion in 2012-13, Ho has expressed concerns that the government has not announced “major infrastructure project” development plans “post-10” (i.e. post-Donald Tsang Yam-kuen’s 10 major infrastructure projects trumpeted in his 2007-08 policy address), without which “we may risk driving our construction industry out of work”. He has suggested housing a million people on Lantau, wondering why we allocate so much land to country parks, and, in January, he said it would be a good idea to build a second Tsing Ma Bridge.

With its extensive reclamation plans, the Lung Mei beach project and massive infrastructure projects proceeding and planned, would it be fair to say the government is clueless, or at least unconcerned, when it comes to sustainable development? “This administration puts the environment in high priority – the four key areas of the chief executive are housing, poverty, economic development and environmental protection,” says Christine Loh Kung-wai, undersecretary for environment. “So, it’s hardly fair to use the word ‘clueless’ to describe this government, but it is necessary to strike a balance between development and environment. Difficult choices have to be made.”

Dudgeon believes measures needed for nature conservation in Hong Kong include an agricultural land use policy and a better small-house policy. He notes that country parks mostly protect hilly areas, that there’s almost a contour line below which small houses are being built in an almost anything-goes manner, and that there has been a general decline in ecologically valuable sites. Areas known as enclaves – perhaps surrounded by, yet excluded from, country parks – have been and are being “trashed”.

For Dudgeon, as a freshwater ecologist, one of the worst examples of such trashing has occurred on Sun Hung Kai Properties’ land at Sham Chung, on the northwest of the Sai Kung Peninsula.

“It was a beautiful place, with a wonderful wetland, a large population of the endemic Hong Kong paradise fish and nice mangroves,” he says. But the valley bottom was wrecked in an attempt to prepare for a development that has so far stalled. “What they did was legal, but absolutely wrong,” adds Dudgeon.

In 2004, the government identified 12 sites that were important for biodiversity, suggesting they could be protected through partnerships between private developers and NGOs. As yet, there are no successful examples of such partnerships; and WWF Hong Kong recently pulled out of a project with Cheung Kong to build housing and partly protect wetland at Fung Lok Wai, near Mai Po.

Dudgeon is scathing about the partnership idea: “A developer hopes to say, ‘We’ll dig a duck pond, so here’s the conservation gain, now let’s build 30-storey buildings on the rest of the site.’ To me, when the government said, ‘We’d like developers to work on public-private partnerships’, it was like drawing a target: let’s trash them. It would be more enlightened for the government to say, ‘Let’s protect them in their entirety.’ If we were to protect all sites known to be important a decade ago, it would only increase the country parks area by 1 per cent.”

There may be a glimmer of hope for both the enclaves and their wildlife, however.

“There is certainly room to expand Hong Kong’s country parks,” Loh says. “Three enclaves [Sai Wan, Kam Shan and Yuen Tun] are currently covered by draft country park maps going through the statutory process, which, by the way, is not without resistance but the government’s intention is clear, and we hope to create new country parks in the next few years.”

Loh joined the government as part of a shake-up of the Environment Bureau under Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Out went environment secretary Edward Yau Tang-wah, who showed more enthusiasm for overseas trips than environmental protection, and in his place came Wong Kam-sing, an architect with extensive experience in sustainable building design. Wong soon enrolled Loh, a former legislator and founder of Civic Exchange, a think tank covering issues including pollution and biodiversity.

Civic Exchange is playing a central role in bringing green groups and academics together to help the government develop a biodiversity strategy and action plan, referred to by the ungainly acronym BSAP, which is scheduled for implementation in 2015. Developing such a plan is among the obligations demanded under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which was extended to Hong Kong in 2011 and “recognises that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and micro-organisms and their ecosystems – it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live”.

“The work will not be confined to experts,” Loh said at a meeting on the BSAP earlier this year. “In Hong Kong, we have never had extensive discussions on all the conflicts between conservation and development.

Now, we need to find how to engage people on the street – how to get them interested.”

Speakers at the meeting included Chan Yiu-keung, assistant director (conservation) of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, who gave a rosy assessment of the situation, noting that three-quarters of Hong Kong is countryside, the percentage of protected areas is way above the global average and about 98 per cent of all legally protected species are found in such areas. His photos likewise suggested Hong Kong is a veritable paradise for plants and animals, with nary a bulldozer nor trace of infrastructure in sight.

Although conservationists outside government have more measured views, they are hopeful. “It’s the best opportunity in many years for achieving broader planning of nature conservation,” says Lau.

Cornish was involved in early discussions about Hong Kong joining the convention, and believes the strategy represents “an opportunity to be taken for doing a variety of things that have never been done before. I’m very optimistic about that.”

Dudgeon also sees grounds for optimism: “It’s a fantastic opportunity, if the government is committed to doing something. But the window of opportunity for a lot of biodiversity in Hong Kong is closing. We are losing what’s left in the enclaves. And the Chinese white dolphin has been well studied, yet almost nothing has been done to protect it. So what hope can we have for smaller, less charismatic species?”

Critics say the environmental protection department is not independent when vetting ecological impact assessments submitted by developers

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Green law has limited impact

Approval for major works is almost a foregone conclusion despite requirements of 1998 act

Cheung Chi-fai and Olga Wong
Updated on Jul 19, 2011

The Environmental Protection Department has rejected only seven out of 196 environmental impact assessment studies on major construction projects over the past 13 years, according to the latest figures available on its website – prompting critics to question the effectiveness of the law and call for reforms.

When Hong Kong introduced the Environmental Impact Assessment Ordinance in 1998 , it was hailed as the most important milestone in its environment policy. The ordinance makes it mandatory for major construction projects to go through a process of identifying potential damage to the environment, to engage in public consultation and undergo government experts’ scrutiny before construction can begin.

But the records for the past 13 years tell a different story. Since the law was introduced, the department has rejected seven assessment reports – less than four per cent of the cases it handled. Twenty-seven were withdrawn before the final process and a total of 162 applications were approved.

Details of the seven rejected reports are scarce, but the government is clearly the biggest beneficiary of the low rejection rate, as government projects account for roughly two-thirds of the 196 cases.

Because different countries have different systems to carry out environmental impact assessments, there is no directly comparable foreign experience. But most experts said the rate is “extremely low”.

Roy Tam Hoi-pong, president of Green Sense – a group advocating better urban planning – said the problem was inherent in the system, which takes environmental impacts into consideration only at the final stage of decision-making.

“The rejection rate is bound to be low under the existing set-up, in which [government] has already pre-determined a project to be necessary for development [before conducting the assessment]. The EIA process is almost the last step to make that happen. Unless they find there is a risk of massive damage to the environment, an impact study is rarely rejected,” said Tam.

Paul Lam Kwan-sing, chairman of the government’s Advisory Council on the Environment, disagreed.

He said only a few assessment reports were rejected because it was a long process and many issues raised during the assessment were addressed and revised in the final report.

Similarly, “few university theses are failed by examiners, as they have been continuously revised with advice given by professors”, Lam said.

However, he agreed the system could be improved and made more independent by inviting foreign experts to participate.

A spokesman for the Environment Protection Department said the EIA process was strictly governed by law, and stressed that the operation is objective and transparent.