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Traffic Control is the Gatekeeper of Lantau Ecology

Green Country Vol. 117 (Dec 2015)

Lantau, an island of natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, is a tourist hotspot that attracts both local people and overseas visitors. During holidays, all major public transport facilities are crowded. At present, besides the vicinity of Tung Chung and the airport, most roads on the island are restricted. There is a suggestion to lift the traffic restrictions, to develop Lantau into a leisure and eco attraction. In fact, effective from Christmas this year more vehicles are allowed to access to South Lantau. The question we must ask, however, is: Will open, easily accessible transport without restriction facilitate ecotourism on Lantau, or eventually destroy ecosystems on the island?

Lantau is the largest island in Hong Kong. Over 70% of the land is still in its natural state, partly as development is difficult on the hilly topography. It is ecologically rich; for example, you can find there the globally unique Lantau Star-anise (Illicium angustisepalum) and Hong Kong Asarum (Asarum hongkongense). Lantau Peak and Sunset Peak are the second and third highest peaks in Hong Kong. They and other similarly gorgeous hills attract hikers from all places. There are numerous temples of various religions—including the "Five Major Buddhist Woodlands"—where visitors can pay homage or find peace of mind, as well as rural villages and markets full of character, making Lantau a top choice to spend the holidays among local people and visitors.

In the past, one could only visit Lantau via water transport. There was no road connection. Following the development of the airport and Tung Chung New Town, there are now roads and railway connecting North Lantau and the city. However, most of the roads in Lantau are still Closed Roads, where vehicles are restricted. These include Tung Chung Road—the main road linking South and North Lantau; South Lantau Road—the main road connecting east and west; and roads connecting to places such as Ngong Ping, Sham Wat and Chi Ma Wan. Apart from vehicles of local people and work-related vehicles, as well as buses and taxis, no other vehicles are allowed on the Closed Roads. In addition, to protect water gathering grounds, roads along the catchwater channels are also restricted, and only public works vehicles are allowed.

Starting from the end of this year, the government relaxes the restrictions on vehicles entering South Lantau for leisure and recreational purposes, including through an increase of quota on tour coaches from 30 to 40 per day, and to permit 25 private cars to enter the Closed Roads in South Lantau on non-holidays.

The suggested increase seems mild and there should be no objection to enabling the public to more readily enjoy South Lantau for leisure and recreation. However, the proposal attracted great controversy, as more traffic means congestion and air pollution, and villagers are worried that the tranquillity of island life will be destroyed. More importantly, green groups are aware that this may become a precedent for opening up more Closed Roads on Lantau. More accessibility means more development, which will damage the island's ecology.

Destruction follows roads opening

Sha Tau Kok serves as a vivid example of how opening Closed Roads will lead to environmental destruction, which we discussed in the feature of the 103th issue of Green Country. Sha Tau Kok was a Closed Frontier Area, where only vehicles and persons with permits could enter. After the opening of the area in 2012, Sha Tau Kok became a tourist hotspot and many of the previously green areas were converted into car parks. In addition, large areas of freshwater wetlands were reclaimed and levelled by landowners with the expectation that property values would rise in future. Not only were these former farmland areas damaged, mangrove forests along the coast were also threatened. Comparing aerial photos of the Closed Frontier Area in 2006 and 2012, we can see a 50% increase in levelled land in Sheung Tam Shui Hang, and a 20% increase in Ha Tam Shui Hang. If similar development happens in ecologically rich Lantau, the future is bleak.

It is not at all surprising that opening up restricted roads will lead to development and rural damage. This has also happened in Tung Chung. In the past, the Transport Department set up a checkpoint at Tung Chung Road to prohibit outside vehicles from entering areas other than Tung Chung New Town. Therefore, there were only few village house developments in the nearby rural area of Tung Chung River valley to the west of the new town. However, in 2007, the checkpoint was relocated to Shek Mun Kap. Afterwards, Tung Chung Valley saw obvious environmental changes. Comparing aerial photos in 2007 and 2015, about 8 hectares of land in Tung Chung Valley were non-green, mostly village houses, in 2007, whereas by 2015, the non-green area jumped to 25 hectares, particularly in Shek Mun Kap and Shek Lau Po, where construction waste filled up many previously green areas.

Even though South Lantau Road is still closed, “illegal” dumping is already happening at Pui O, threatening the natural coastline and wetlands. The Outline Zoning Plan for Pui O was in place before the Town Planning Ordinance was enacted, so those who are dumping on private land cannot be prosecuted. Besides, the private land involved is not under statutory land use land regulations. Hence, even though this is officially a "Coastal Protection Area", the government can do nothing to stop the irreversible damage to the landscape and ecology.

No works vehicles allowed

Vehicle restrictions inevitably limit crowds and development. The fact so much of Lantau's natural rural landscape survived is due in large part to the regulation of traffic control. So the question is: how can traffic on Lantau be planned so as to facilitate visitors while protecting the natural environment?

First of all, the government must target the issue of illegal dumping. Dumping of waste is the major threat to the local countryside. It happens all the time and can hardly be monitored. The waste directly turns vegetated habitats or wetlands into patches of wasteland with drastically altered and often near-zero ecological value.

Currently, all construction waste must be sent to one of the 16 Construction Waste Disposal Facilities, according to the level of inert construction waste. If the works site is in Tung Chung, the nearest facility is at Mui Wo, where a permit is required for vehicle entry. Hence, the waste is typically transported to Tuen Mun. The long trip and the North Lantau toll make the transport costs high, in addition to the waste disposal charge. There is indeed a financial incentive for illegal dumping on Lantau.

The planned new town development in Tung Chung covers 240 hectares, of which 124 hectares is on land reclaimed from the sea. The reclamation is about 6.5 times the size of Victoria Park. The population of Tung Chung is expected to reach some 220,000. Considering the large scale of the works, even if only a small part of the construction and demolition waste is illegally dumped in Lantau, the consequences will be alarming.

It would be very naïve for the government to treat illegal dumping solely as individual cases. The closed roads in Lantau must never be opened to works vehicles, particularly heavy trucks. Works vehicles must be required to obtain permits for entry during works periods. In addition, the government must set up a comprehensive reporting system for construction waste, to ensure it is properly handled.

Say no to complete opening

Taking reference to Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macao Bridge, in avoiding damage to Lantau ecology it was redesigned to be a little further from the northern coast of Lantau. The government must bear this principle in mind and prohibit the construction of large transport facilities and roads in the area. What is more, air quality in west Hong Kong has always been low. To avoid air quality worsening from vehicle discharges, the government must regulate vehicle flows, instead of opening up all roads on Lantau.

Perhaps some people will think that green groups are over-sensitive, as the government has just mildly relaxed the use of roads for leisure and recreational purposes. However, we must be aware that once the precedent is set, the scale of road opening will only be larger in the days to come. Vehicle flows and restrictions may be relaxed to a proper extent. It is good to see that the public can more conveniently enjoy the nature of Lantau. Yet we should keep the bottom line: under no circumstances can the roads in Lantau be completely open. Also, works vehicles must be strictly regulated. Only then we can safeguard the treasury of some of the last natural lowland areas in Hong Kong.

Text | Henry Lui & Dr. Cheng Luk-ki

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