Residential buildings spring up as land reclamation continues in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. Photo: CFP
China's recent island disputes with neighboring countries have revitalized the idea of building up islands on coral reefs or creating land far out at sea to secure territorial sovereignty of these waters. Back in the mainland, land reclamation has been a common way of resolving land shortage in coastal areas.
In fact, the practice has become so common and is increasing at such an alarming rate that more and more environmentalists and residents are beginning to worry about its potential risks. A call is growing for a reexamination of this practice that permanently changes the coastal landscape.
Qingdao, a coastal city in Shandong Province, facing the Yellow Sea, has converted one-third of a 535-square-kilometer bay into land over the past half century. Local resident Yang Jingyuan, 53, said his home used to have a sea view in the 1990s but he has witnessed the coastline being pushed further and further away.
"This area has been through great changes, from a place where young people could play in the waves to being dry and inland," he said. The new land areas have been turned into residential communities and factories.
Hard to resist
Land reclamation has long been practiced in China. Sources show that in the second half of the 20th century, China reclaimed land or enclosed the sea over 12,000 square kilometers, roughly 240 square kilometers per year on average. The early stages of land reclamation were mostly powered by preliminary industries like salt works and aquatics breeding in tidal flats. Since the 1990s when the real estate industry took off, land has been increasingly reclaimed for urban and industrial development.
Claiming land is an advantage for economic development that no coastal city can resist, as from every aspect, it is the most convenient and cheap solution after decades of rapid urban expansion and industrial development have engulfed most available land.
There is no fuss about relocating existent residents, no forced evictions, no compensation to the former tenants and no vast amounts of land transition fees to be paid.
Over the past decade, land reclamation has drastically accelerated. During the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-10), more than 700 square kilometers of land were created annually on China's eastern and southern coasts, an area equal to the size of Singapore.
A perfect example of the transition from fishing villages to a metropolis, much of the urban areas in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, was built on artificially created land. As much of the city's territory is mountainous, Shenzhen is staking its future on pushing out to sea. In the latest project, 15 square kilometers of land were created over the past six years beside the Pearl River delta, to be built into a financial service district aimed to rival Hong Kong.
In Baoan district, a strip of land on the east side of the river, both residential and business areas were built on reclaimed land.
The land reclamation projects have been advancing so fast that online map updates are unable to keep up. In total, Shenzhen is now working on land reclamation amounting to 38 square kilometers, including the expansion of the city airport. Upon completion, a bay will have completely disappeared, and two islands in the river mouth will be connected. However, experts are warning that these projects are not only changing the landscape and topography, but are also having a gradually growing impact on the environment.
Shenzhen's land reclamation first received wide public attention when reports surfaced of land sinking in Baoan district, across at least nine residential communities and the district government building in an area of several square kilometers.
Newly paved roads swelled and cracked, but more terrifyingly, some structural pillars of buildings were partly lifted out of the earth and seemed suspended in the air revealing big cracks of up to 12 centimeters wide. Bricks on roadside pavements split and long fissures appeared.
The region in Baoan was only reclaimed about 10 years ago with residential towers springing up five years later. However, geologists working for the district government have warned that it may take another 30 years for the reclaimed land to be fully usable.
This delay is intolerable to most property developers who refuse to sit on open land without using it, given the lucrative practice of building properties on reclaimed land.
However, the safety of such ventures is beginning to be questioned by people living on the sinking land. Most homeowners keep quiet on this matter as they fear their properties, often worth millions of yuan, could devaluate, and many silently put their property on sale.
Other experts take a different tack from the geologists, insisting that the building quality is fine and that the land sinking does not pose a security risk, since the buildings all have a deep groundsill.
Yan Wei, a man working in the area, said the fluctuating road levels are a constant reminder of how insecure the area is. The government's remedy to seal the big cracks with concrete has failed to fix the situation so far.
This drive is not seen in Shenzhen alone but across almost all coastal cities that devote themselves to land reclamation. Some giant projects have been built for public facilities like ports and airports, while most others are fueled by enthusiastic real estate developers.
Among the most controversial projects are the ones in Hainan Province, the tropical island which was approved by the central government to develop into an "international tourism island." In order to maintain high property prices, many land reclamation projects are located at scenic spots in major cities and are built into luxury sea-front residences.
One of the real estate projects in Sanya, being constructed on an artificial island as popularized in Dubai, sells at 90,000 yuan per square meter. However, the cost of creating the island is roughly 300 yuan per square meter.
It seems fair that the authorities pocket the revenue of selling the land rights to developers, who themselves make big bucks by building the fancy residences for wealthy homebuyers. In 2011 alone, the Hainan provincial government received 360 million yuan from selling approvals for the usage of reclaimed land to developers and leasing maritime areas to seafood farms.
The controversy of land reclamation for commercial purposes has drawn a lot of criticism, as people believe the seafront should be preserved for the public. Under Chinese law, all land reclamation projects must be fully upfront about their purpose and reveal information about their likely environmental impact for public consideration before construction begins. However, it is commonplace for developers to hide the true information from the public and change the project's purpose several times in order to get approved. A project in Haikou, the provincial capital of Hainan, shifted from being a lighthouse to a hotel and eventually rose up as an office building.
All land reclamation projects involving 50 hectares of land or more must get State Council approval, but developers simply split the projects into several smaller areas which only require local government oversight, according to the Xinhua News Agency.
The combination of massive land reclamation projects has greatly changed the coastal landscape. Ding Dewen, member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and an expert on marine life, revealed that more than 806 islands near China's coastline have vanished, or more specifically, become linked with the mainland, World Vision magazine reported.
That has accelerated the dwindling of sea areas. The Bohai Sea, enclosed by three provinces and Tianjin municipality, is slowly shrinking and land reclamation is only accelerating this. Bohai is especially favored for land reclamation as it has a relatively shallow average depth of 18 meters, further lowering the cost of creating land there.
Conservationists have long been critical of such human activity of changing the landscape. While the project in Haikou is still under construction, media have reported that the sea water has begun emitting noxious smells as the project interferes with the natural water flow.
For environmentalists, the loss of wetlands is the biggest concern. Statistics show that half of the wetlands in China has been lost to land reclamation in the past decade.
"It's disastrous for migrating birds that need replenishment on their travel, like cars on a long-distance trip can't find any gas station," said Feng Yongfeng, with environmental NGO Green Beagle.
Feng said as the seaside wetland absorbs many pollutants in the water, especially when more sewage and industrial waste is pumped to the sea, its disappearance contributed to the growing frequency of red tides, caused by algae outbreak.
However, due to its high profitability, land reclamation is running increasingly rampant, both legally and illegally. From 2007 to 2009, the State Oceanic Administration found more than 140 kilometers of unauthorized reclaimed land along the country's coastline.
Since 2010, the National Development and Reform Commission has sought to bring wayward land reclamation activities under control. It has begun annual planning for specific areas which each coastal city is allowed to reclaim from the sea, which will hopefully lessen this runaway tampering with nature.