Reclamation has returned to the spotlight since Chief Executive Carrie Lam unveiled her Lantau Tomorrow Vision in October. Some of the objections that have been raised to this ambitious plan are due to concerns about environmental damage. But what if it were possible to reclaim land in a way that is sympathetic to the environment?
The Netherlands has centuries of experience in this area, and has developed a range of methods that can encourage the development of balanced ecosystems.
At a Chamber roundtable on 20 February, Piet Dircke, Global Leader of Water Management and Resilience at Arcadis, explained the country’s history of reclamation.
“The Netherlands is a very low-lying country with more than half of the land vulnerable to flooding,” he said. “So water management, flood protection and coastal management are very important in keeping our country going.”
The geography of the Netherlands today has been shaped from hundreds of islands. Originally, land was reclaimed for agriculture, and many of the windmills that are now a key tourist attraction were built to remove the water.
“Water management is a very old profession in the Netherlands. The oldest water board in the country was founded in 1200 and is still in operation today.”
The Netherlands uses the polder system of enclosing areas of wetlands, as Dircke explained. “Polder is a Dutch word that means new reclaimed land protected by a dike. It is low lying, so it requires its own water system, and needs a pump as the water needs to go up.”
A key aspect of the poldar system is that it can develop land below sea level. This saves time and costs, because less sand is needed, and it is also less environmentally damaging.
Dircke said that the true value of the system in Holland is not just in its engineering and design excellence, but also in its governance. “What is also important is operation and maintenance – and the funding to keep the infrastructure in place throughout the decades of its lifespan.”
Some of the country’s projects have secured funding as far ahead as 2100.
Dircke explained that in the past, reclamation projects did not include environmental protection as a priority. That has changed, and “building with nature” is an essential component of land redevelopment in the country.
One innovative project that demonstrates this ethos is the “sand engine.” A pile of 20 million cubic metres of sand was deposited on the west coast. Over the next few years, it spread out to strengthen the coastline. Seals have returned to the area, and the new beach created has become a popular tourist spot and a magnet for kite surfers.
“Nature knows better than us how to deal with forces like wind, water and sand,” Dircke said. “Now, the sand is nicely distributed along the coastline, and we didn't need to use dredgers after the initial dumping. Nature created a better environment than we had expected.”
He added that many PhDs were involved in the sand engine project.
In the Netherlands, projects are also optimized to make good use of the space. “A dike is no longer an obstacle; it is a connector between neighbours,” he said. In Katwijk, on the west cost of the Netherlands, for example, the dike also serves as a car park and an attractive landscape for people to visit.
Reclaiming land is expensive, but there can also be financial benefits. This is partly as a result of removing the risk and making urban areas more resilient. But if it is done well, it can also increase the value of land and real estate.
“Dealing with water creates new opportunities, new waterfront development and new ecosystems,” he said. “We should emphasise the opportunities.”
Another area where Hong Kong could learn from the experience of the Netherlands is in the involvement of local people. In recent years, communities have played a part in plans for redevelopment that affect them. For example, in Frederiksplein in Amsterdam, local schools were involved in the design of a plaza.
“If you want to govern well, you need to look for financing, but you also need to get public support,” Dircke said.