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UPDATED: February 13, 2012 NO. 7 FEBRUARY 16, 2012
Not So Paradise Islands
Unregulated land reclamation threatens China's marine environment
By Li Li

To bypass regulations from the Marine Environment Protection Law and the Law on the Administration of the Use of Sea Areas, which state that land reclamation projects of 50 hectares and above should be subject to approval from the State Council, local governments often first build smaller patches of reclaimed land and then link these patches together to reclaim massive pieces of land that can measure up to 1,000 hectares.

A clear financial incentive lies behind local governments' enthusiasm to fill the sea. The relatively low cost of land reclamation coupled with high land prices means that cash-strapped local governments that rely heavily on land sales for their revenue can raise huge amounts of money by selling reclaimed land to property developers.

Building artificial islands in order to enable cities to expand also avoids destroying farmland, which is strictly protected by the Central Government. To ensure food security, China has set a "red line" to guarantee that its arable land never falls below 120 million hectares, making it difficult for local governments to expand municipal boundaries to include the surrounding countryside. It also allows local governments to skirt the issues that normally accompany land expropriations in urban areas, such as compensating home-owners and demolishing existing buildings.

"Extravagant profits are driving this craze for reclamation," Liu said, noting that the cost of filling varies from 450,000 yuan ($71,349) to 4.5 million yuan ($713,490) per hectare, while earnings can be as high as 100 times the cost.

Dubbed "Oriental Dubai," Phoenix Island in China's southernmost resort city of Sanya in Hainan Province is a manmade islet that will house luxury hotels as well as an international cruise ship port.

Houses on the islet sell for as much as 100,000 yuan ($15,855) per square meter, a price driven by Hainan's ambition to build the island into an international tourist destination.

Inspired by Phoenix Island, other coastal cities and towns along the shores of Hainan are considering building similar manmade islets or reclaiming more land from the sea.

"Almost the whole of the 300-km east coast of Hainan Province has already been sold to various property developers," Lin Hongmin, a former senior engineer at the Hainan Academy for Construction Planning and Design, told Xinhua News Agency.

Uncontrollable dangers

Damage to the marine ecosystem has been a serious side effect of these land reclamation projects. According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, a remarkable environmental concern arising from China's coastal areas is that accelerated reclamation in recent years has led to the rapid disappearance of seaside wetlands, which are important for sustaining native biodiversity.

In addition to destroying local marine habitats, land reclamation involves dredging the seabed, and increases water pollution by releasing heavy metals, pesticide residues and other toxins that have been absorbed into the soil.

Between 1996 and 2007, Bohai Bay, one of the three bays forming the Bohai Sea, lost 551 square km to land reclamation while its coastal wetlands were reduced by 718 square km, which meant that the pollutant absorption capacity of the entire Bohai-rim area declined by up to 10 percent.

"We must put the brakes on the disorganized reclamation of land from the sea because the practice will damage the ecosystem and the results of this damage are irreversible," Liu from the OUC said.

"The damage to the ecosystem by excessive reclamation of land is gradual, accumulative and not immediately visible," said Zhang Luoping, a professor at the College of Oceanography and Environmental Science, Xiamen University.

"In the short term, the consequences won't be remarkable, yet the damage will be disastrous over the long term," Zhang said.

The SOA released a report in 2011, which said that China's sea islands are rapidly disappearing due to land reclamation while many of the remaining ones are undergoing major landscape transformation caused by sand and gravel mining as well as illegal farming at the cost of the original ecosystem. Moreover, environmental conditions on China's islands are also being degraded by industrial activities including dumping toxic waste and discharging industrial sewage into the ocean. Coral mining, clearing mangroves and the commercial collection of endangered plants and wildlife also present a clear existential threat to island ecosystems.

Wu Jinchao, a senior researcher at the No.2 Institute of Oceanography under the SOA, said that restoring the ecosystems of all China's islands would require a total investment of up to 100 billion yuan ($15.86 billion).

The SOA plans to launch a nationwide survey of off-shore islands later this year, which will provide suggestions on how to develop, administer and protect China's islands.

In the long term, reclaimed land always faces the risk of subsidence and being inundated by rising sea levels. Homebuyers have also started to worry about the safety of the land-reclamation programs and their fears are not baseless.

In 2010, several apartment buildings erected on reclaimed land in Shenzhen, Guangdong, showed signs of sinking, as cracks as wide as 10 cm appeared in these buildings, and this led to doubts about the safety of buildings constructed on offshore landfills.

"Apart from subsidence, earthquakes and tsunamis also pose serious threats to buildings on reclaimed land," said Yang Guanxiong, a former geographical researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Email us at: lili@bjreview.com

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