Land Reclamation in Asia: Is eco-engineering possible?

Commentary / 4th Quarter 2022

Land Reclamation in Asia: Is eco-engineering possible?

by Justin Ng

December 7, 2022

Asia has been growing at a staggering rate for quite some time now (both figuratively and literally).

From Dubai, China to Malaysia, land reclamation is nothing new as the furious demand for a variety of developments has fuelled the creation of coastal reclamations from the sea. According to public projects published since 1990, China is estimated to have reclaimed over 20,000 square kilometres of land.1 Likewise, neighbouring countries have significantly expanded via aggressive land reclamation, with Singapore’s land area having increased by approximately 25 per cent2 since 1819 (578 to 719 square kilometres),3 and Macau currently sitting on top at a staggering 160 per cent increase in land area (1,900 hectares).4

At the turn of the century, a more recent phenomenon has become prevalent across Asia: increased massive-scale land reclamation projects and the construction of entire new artificial islands. From Dubai’s islands, which resemble curious art forms rather than substantial developments, to Hong Kong’s planned artificial island in Lantau totalling 1,700 hectares for a whopping price tag of HKD624 billion, it has become a ‘pandemic’ of mega land reclamation projects, feverishly spanning super-modern housing developments and entertainment archipelagos full of hotels, restaurants, theatres and shops.

While contributing to the economy and accommodating increasing populations, these coastal developments and artificial islands in Asia have put shoreline ecosystems at risk and ignited a global conversation on the topic of conservation. In understanding the process of land reclamation and its effects, it brings us to question: Is reclamation a sustainable option in today’s context? While it has obviously served many cities and countries well in the past, does it remain a viable way to promote development in the near future?


Scarcity of available land supply in certain Asian countries has been an impetus of aggressive expansion and reclamation. In Hong Kong, the city suffers from chronic overcrowding and housing shortages, with population density exceeding Mumbai’s at 27,400 persons per square kilometre of developed land and property prices reaching exorbitant amounts due to housing shortages. This explains why 6 per cent of the city’s land is reclaimed, which is home to 27 per cent of its population. According to the municipal Task Force, the city will still need an additional 4,800 hectares by 2046, which is most feasibly achieved through reclamation of valuable land.5


Land reclamation and its developments have been used to drive many countries’ economies, further aiming to reshape cultural and social integration across urban spaces. However, environmental groups have stressed that land reclamation is irreversible: the land cannot be returned to a natural state, and that part of the ocean is lost forever. This can lead to both immediate and long-term impacts within the environment, particularly along coastal areas with heavy tourism, construction and shipping activities.

In order to create new land, natural habitats (e.g., seagrass beds, mangrove forests) are inevitably affected and replaced by artificial ones to accommodate land creation like marinas, seawalls and breakwaters. It is projected that by 2030, up to 12.5 million square kilometres of natural habitats will be replaced by artificial habitats, which can change the natural coastlines and alter existing waterbeds whilst generating pollution, causing disruptions to marine ecosystems and leading to coastal erosions.8

Immediate effects

Ecosystems are abruptly disrupted as natural islands are artificially fused with coastlines, natural shorelines are extended and artificial islands are built entirely from scratch. Vast land reclaimed across coastal Asia has meant the annihilation of mangroves, wetlands and reefs—destroying the habitats and breeding grounds for fish, sea turtles, crustaceans, plants and other marine life. In Singapore, for example, coral reefs formerly covered an estimated 30.5 square kilometres in 1953.9 By 1993, that number had dropped to 17 square kilometres and sits at a mere 9.5 square kilometres in 2021.10 Likewise, in 1819, Singapore land was 13 per cent mangrove swamp and today, only 0.5 per cent of it remains, a staggering 96 per cent loss due to land reclamation.11

Long-term effects

Effects less noticeable now will cause irreversible changes to the marine ecosystem in the long run. High levels of reclamation-related coastal activity contribute to sedimentation or murky waters. While visibility underwater in the 1960s was 10 metres, nowadays, this has been reduced to 2 metres or less.14 As sediment in the water reduces light penetration, this affects photosynthesis of seagrasses and other plants, as well as corals, which rely on their symbiotic algae.


Historically, development required new land, particularly in highly urbanised areas—thus rejecting it then was virtually impossible. In today’s context, however, the questions become whether there are strategies and technologies that could reduce land reclamation’s overall environmental impact, and if reclamation should still be a developmental option in the near future.

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Justin Ng is responsible for the delivery of ESG and supply-chain sustainability consulting projects and strategies for the Asia region in his current consulting role at ELEVATE Global Limited. His project portfolio includes ESG advisory, stakeholder engagement and supply chain due diligence. He has worked in New York and Hong Kong, including public sector consulting for companies such as Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and was involved in local projects related to Smart City and IoT infrastructure. As a researcher at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), he has participated in government-funded strategy publications including examining “Trans-regional Air Pollution Control in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area” and “Developing Hong Kong as a Global Green Finance Centre”. He is passionate about topics of sustainability, where he frequently contributes his insights to on topics of sustainable finance, land reclamation and Green buildings. Justin has a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a BSc in Media, Culture & Communication from New York University.

Read more stories from FuturArc 4Q 2022 Year-End Issue!

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23 Aurecon

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