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Environmental issues in Hong Kong

23 December, 2015 - 17:08

Having studied some of China's environmental issues, we now turn to the issues facing Hong Kong.

Hong Kong, a small coastal city (in area) in the Pearl River Delta, shares similar environmental problems as other metropolises arising from dense population and land use conflicts. Less than 15% of the approximately 1,000 km2 of land area in Hong Kong is inhabitable. To create more land to accommodate Hong Kong's population, Hong Kong has been reclaiming coastal areas since the early part of the 20th century. Excessive reclamation has become a political, social and environmental issue. Our famous Victoria Harbour has become narrower and narrower due to years of reclamation off both shores. As a result, the ability of the water body flowing through Victoria Harbour to assimilate pollutants is reduced, and the current speed is increased with resultant impacts upon the local ecology and the ability of the water way to accommodate natural biological life which is able to break down water borne pollutants.

These have caused deterioration in the water quality of Victoria Harbour and the transport of pollutants to farther sensitive receivers. A non-government organization (NGO), the Society for Protection of the Harbour, was formed in 1995 with the objective to protect Victoria Harbour from destruction caused by the government's excessive reclamation and improper development. In 1996, the Society proposed the Harbour Protection Ordinance, which aimed at limiting land reclamation in Victoria Harbour, and presented it to the Legislative Council. The Ordinance, Cap. 531, was passed in 1997 and then amended in 1999 making it applicable to the entire area of Victoria Harbour. As a result of the judicial review applied by the Society in 2003 on the third phase of the Central reclamation project, the High Court in 2003 laid down three tests to justify or dejustify reclamation projects in Victoria Harbour under planning. These three tests are:

  • compelling, over-riding and present need;
  • no viable alternative; and
  • minimum impairment.

Due to Hong Kong's dense population and limited inhabitable areas, land uses in Hong Kong often lead to conflicts with the environment, particularly the conservation of the surviving natural habitat. One well known incident was the Lok Ma Chau Spurline project, with the MTR proposing an alignment of the rail line passing through Long Valley, a freshwater wetland supporting rich avifauna. A judicial review of the EIA for the project resulted in the MTR putting the rail line in a tunnel through Long Valley, thus conserving the freshwater wetland. We will study this case in more detail in a later unit. Another more recent case is the extension of the SENT landfill in Tseung Kwan O. Objections have been raised by green groups because the extension would intrude into a country park, and also by nearby residents for environmental reasons.

Some people call Hong Kong a concrete jungle due to the high density of high rise buildings. Densely populated high rise buildings create efficiency particularly in public transport. However, such land use also creates environmental problems. These buildings, if not properly planned and laid out, could form barriers to air ventilation resulting in a heat island effect, increasing the air temperature in urban areas, as well as trapping roadside air pollutants emitted by road traffic. Air pollution from transport is a major environmental concern in Hong Kong. If you want to learn more about this, we suggest that you read the Civic Exchange's two publications on ‘The air we breathe.'

Reading 1.6

Civic Exchange (2009a) The Air We Breathe 2: Dialogue on Road Transportation, Expert Symposium Summary Report: 091127report.pdf

Reading 1.7

Civic Exchange (2009b) The Air We Breathe 2: Dialogue on Road Transportation, Public Conference Summary Report: 091128report.pdf

These two documents provide you useful information on Hong Kong's status of air pollution, particularly at road side from traffic on Hong Kong's busy streets, the kinds of air pollutants and their health effects. Densely populated high rises also expose comparatively more people to traffic noise, which is another major environmental concern in Hong Kong. When you are travelling on Hong Kong's roads and highways, you will notice extensive noise barriers of different sizes and shapes to protect residents in nearby flats against traffic noise. In fact, Hong Kong is likely to be the one city on earth with the most extensive noise barriers.

Hong Kong has been building infrastructure to treat and dispose of its liquid and solid wastes. The Stonecutters Island Sewage Treatment Plant is among the largest in the world and is being upgraded to treat more than 2.5 million m3 of sewage per day from urban Kowloon and Hong Kong and reduce the incidents of pathogens deposited on the neighboring shoreline. Since Hong Kong is a coastal city, there have been arguments on whether to adopt cheaper low level of sewage treatment for disposal to the ocean to make use of the dispersive and assimilative capacity of the sea, or to adopt more expensive high level treatment after which the treated effluent would be discharged to the sea anyway. Due to limited land space for landfills, Hong Kong's strategy on reducing solid waste is to incinerate. This is a controversial issue that has been debated for quite some time. You are welcome to form your own views on how we should treat our liquid and solid wastes: low level vs high level sewage treatment, and landfilling vs incineration.

Hong Kong is small and is affected by the environmental conditions in its hinterland in the Pearl River Delta (PRD). Industrialization, population growth and economic development in the Pearl River Delta have resulted in environmental deterioration, particularly to air quality and water quality, that have been affecting Hong Kong. Such regional and trans-boundary influence cannot be ignored and is difficult to mitigate, needing cooperation among different municipalities in the PRD. Later in this unit, you will be introduced to EIAs that address regional and trans-boundary environmental issues.

Upon reading the above sections let's try a Self-test 1.1 to see if you can grasp the concepts above. Do not forget to check the Feedback to Self-test 1.1.

Reading 1.8 will help you understand the issues related to air quality, noise, waste, water quality and nature conservation in Hong Kong and what the EPD has done to protect Hong Kong's environment. Please read Reading 1.8 before you proceed.

Reading 1.8

Environmental Protection Department (2009) ‘Chapter 9: Water' and ‘Chapter 10: Nature conservation', inEnvironment Hong Kong 2009,HKSAR Government, pp. 60–70:

  • Chapter 9 (pp. 60–64): Water

Some highlights in 2008 include an agreement reached with Shenzhen to clean up contaminated sediment in the Shenzhen River and beginning construction on the Disinfection Facilities for the Habour Area Treatment Scheme.

  • Chapter 10 (pp. 65–70): Nature conservation

In 2008, the 24th country park was opened and the government planned to set up Hong Kong's first geopark.

After finished the reading above, please complete the Activity 1.2 and Self-test 1.2. Do not forget to check the answers before you moved on.

Yes there are environmental problems. What about solutions? In general, most developed countries consider sustainable development to be the way forward. We will discuss this concept in the next section.