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July 2016

While land reclamation acts as a solution to urban expansion and flooding, experts argue that it comes with a price due to its impact on marine ecosystems.



American author Mark Twain once said: “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”. Twain couldn’t be more wrong.

Today the act of land reclamation, or put simply creating new land from the sea for urbanisation, is being presented as a viable solution to address population growth.

Land reclamation has been taking place for close to four decades on almost every continent of the world. The first major land reclamations were done in 1970s, when Port Rotterdam in the Netherlands was extended with sand from the sea. Since then, new technology has made land reclamation less harmful on the environment, although sustainability experts are adamant that there might be unknown long-term effects and risks associated with expected sea-level rise across the world.


According to recent estimates on population growth by the United Nations, population will increase to 9 billion people in 2050, of which the majority will live in coastal zones. “Adding population growth to the trend of migration from rural to urban areas means port cities face an enormous challenge to accommodate everyone in terms of housing, employment, education, recreation and transport.”

This according to René Kolman Secretary General of the International Association of Dredging Companies (IADC). The company is a global umbrella organisation for contractors in the private dredging industry. Dredging is the underwater excavation of soils and rocks and is the process of making new land from the sea for urbanisation and for ports and harbours.

Kolman says that today coastal areas are essential to economic development. “Today about half the world’s population lives within 100 km of water. And this trend continues to grow. Eight of the largest ten cities are along a coast and urbanisation is evident around the world. The demand for additional land for housing, industry and recreation along the coasts is becoming steadily more acute.

“If cities can’t grow outward, they grow upwards resulting in more congestion in terms of industry, roads and demand for services. While this trend might have at one time seemed insurmountable, from the 1970s onwards the dredging industry has developed new technologies for creating new land in the water. As a result, ‘buying’ new land by ‘making’ it through reclamation is turning out to be less expensive than developing old land,” he says.

However, for architect, urban planner and former President of the Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners Felino Palafox: “One cannot resort to reclamation just because it is the most convenient solution toward a lack of urban space and new urban land for real estate development, when there are still potential areas that can be developed elsewhere in the metropolis,” he said in a recent opinion piece he wrote for the Manila Times.

He explained that the Philippines, an archipelago with the third longest coastline in the world, still has a lot of vacant and underutilised land. Palafox believes that finances used in the reclamation process would be more beneficial within environmental rehabilitation, retrofitting and developing undeveloped areas in the country.

Although, he’s quick to point out that as a last resort Singapore reclaimed over 6,000 hectares of land to enlarge the island in order to address the problem of urban expansion, a solution that many countries, including the Netherlands and Maldives have also taken.


According to Franz Jenowein, Sustainability Consulting Director at JLL, land reclamation from the sea may be a short to mid-term solution to satisfy additional land demand due to demographic pressure and economic growth, “but reclaimed land, by its very location, may be at risk in the long-term through expected sea-level rise across the world driven by climate change.”

A compensatory factor of land reclamation may be its positive impact, says Jenowein, in protecting existing shorelines from increased coastal erosion. “However, these are mid-term climate change adaptation solutions and can only work if accompanied by global measures that mitigate climate change and related sea-level rises in the long-term.”

While Jenowein maintains that land reclamation from the sea not only takes into account the economic gains provided by the additional buildable area created, he says it also needs to look at the impact on the immediate underwater flora and fauna, wetlands and local livelihoods it indirectly impacts.

“These days, developers are under sufficient pressure from public authorities through planning conditions and environmental pressure groups that any potential damage done to existing underwater flora and fauna will hopefully be compensated by adequate mitigation measures, with the expert help of marine biologists and other specialists. Transparent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) processes need to assure that the development impact on the underwater/wetland world and on local livelihoods by such projects remain limited or provide compensation for any potential harm,” he says.

Although, he’s quick to add that about a decade ago, little or no thought was given to environmental issues and due to stakeholder engagement, increased public awareness of environmental issues and scrutiny, and a general demand for transparency in large development projects, these issues are no longer ignored.

Kolman agrees, saying that before any land reclamation projects can be done in port cities and coastal areas, these must fulfil specific technical and maritime requirements, and concerned stakeholders need to sit down to address any environmental issues.

Although, while Kolman concedes that it is impossible to leave an area unaffected after reclamation, he believes that benefits far outweigh the risks.

For example land reclamation is essential for coastal protection; many Asian cities are prone to flooding and the World Bank is currently working with the government to strengthen the capital’s defences through reclamation.

“The Netherlands is another example. Every three or four years the country is required to replenish their beaches to prevent flooding because a large part of the country is below sea level. If there were no dykes and dunes at the coast, half of the country would be flooded. But the downside is that every time we replenish the beach we disturb the seabed and this impacts fauna,” says Kolman.

Another benefit includes beach nourishment which has long been a necessity for coastal protection, but today, says Kolman, it’s a form of extending living and recreational possibilities. “Currumbin – Tugin Beach on the Gold Coast of Australia was in dire straits before reclamation took place. The same can be said of Spain’s Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts and many other coastal areas. The east and west coasts of the United States are also replenished each year and the coastlines of India, Si Lanka and Indonesia have been restored after the tsunami.”

The dredging community is working with new technology from research institutes, based in Europe, and are coming up with new methods to further minimise the environmental impact and find more sustainable means to reclamation.


For Kolman one of the most recent and successful case studies includes The Palm in Dubai, which has increased Dubai’s coastline by about 150km.

“Dubai’s warm climate is inviting as a vacation destination, but with a coastline of only 70km the opportunities for recreational attractions were few. And then thoughts turned to land reclamation. The possibility of artificially expanding the coastline and creating more interesting residential and recreational water-related activities was seen as a viable alternative thanks to the innovative technologies of the modern dredging industry,” he says.

The project was the first land reclamation project which used 110 million cubic metres of sand, and was soon followed by Palm Jebel Ali, and then The World which used 325 million cubic metres of sand. “The economic impact of these projects on Dubai has been quite remarkable and has clearly given Dubai a central role in the tourist industry,” says Kolman.

Looking at the UAE’s neighbour, off the coast of Doha land reclamation has added 400 ha of land, 30 km of coastline and will house 30,000 residents.

Bahrain’s reclamation works include the Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Causeway, the Bahrain Financial Harbour, the Bahrain Bay project, Ritz Carlton II and the North Bahrain New Town project as well as the North Manama Causeway.

All over the world, governments and developers are creating mixed-use developments on reclaimed land to accommodate the rise in population and as a coastal protection method – and so far it’s worked, but the bigger question still remains: What long-term impact will land reclamation have on ecosystems and marine environment?

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