Drops of knowledge

Environment and ecosystems, Marine water

How land reclamations can work with nature

Aerial panoramic view of Penang's Gurney Drive sea reclamation

Reclamation projects worldwide in strategic locations have created valuable land to support rising industrialisation and urbanisation demands due to population increase and the need to sustain long-term economic growth.

Locations with notable reclamations are the Netherlands, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and others.

In Malaysia, states like Johor, Melaka, Penang and Kedah have undertaken and are planning to reclaim more land for economic reasons and urban development.

Dr Juan Savioli, head of DHI Water and Environment Malaysia’s coastal and marine department, shares his insights into reclamation work and how concerns can be addressed for sustainable development.

Reclamation projects, even after passing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), often receive bad press. Is this due to a lack of understanding?

Dr Savioli: In many cases, the scepticism about reclamation projects stems from lack of understanding on how reclamation development is carried out. There have been instances when design plans and environmental recommendations could have been improved – by including proper stakeholder engagement, for example – to result in more successful projects and a better balance of environmental and social impacts.

In some cases, questions with respect to environmental impact and livelihood of fishermen and other stakeholders remain after environmental studies have been carried out and approved.

This is due to lack of sufficiently comprehensive baseline data collection, which addresses existing activities, the underlying resources and their ecosystem services.

It is therefore important that a proper masterplan and assessment of the reclamation development is performed to avoid these issues. Such a masterplan should:

  • Serve the needs of the developer and society
  • Have a good internal functionality in terms of the marine elements (such as beaches and lagoons)
  • Be part of an overall development plan for the area
  • Aim for minimum impact on the environment during construction and operation
  • Utilise the natural conditions at the site instead of fighting against them
  • Have a well-defined planning horizon, accounting for expected consequences of climate change and other phenomena (such as sea level rise or land subsidence, etc.)
  • Be flexible to further unexpected consequences of climate change

Despite concerns, why do many countries, including advanced nations like Denmark, still reclaim land?

Holland, Denmark, Singapore, Japan, the UAE and many other countries have been successfully carrying out reclamation for many years and they continue doing so, as the demand for suitable land continues.

They have been successful with their developments and that includes many projects like the Port of Rotterdam, Strandparken, Køge Bay beach park, Zandmotor (The Sand Motor), and these are mainly related to good planning. There are also planned and ongoing reclamations such as Denmark’s energy island and the Fehmarn Belt link.

Some of these countries have limited land area, whereas the argument in Malaysia in general is whether or not existing land is presently used in an optimum manner.

Are reclamation projects not as good as brownfield developments?

Reclamation projects are not better or worse than brownfield developments. It all depends on the project requirements, availability of land, potential land contamination, etc. The main reasons are associated with social, economic, environmental, and physical aspects.

However, in areas where land is scarce or not available, reclamation allows the creation of valuable land.

Are all reclaimed developments in danger of sinking, like the Kansai Airport that was built on a manmade island?

No. If properly designed, settlement (sinking) should not be an issue. Kansai Airport is a special case where a large mass of land was constructed in an area with a very thick layer of soft mud with large settlements, but these settlements were underestimated during the design phase.

Any project or activity has possible associated risks, and it is important that these are properly assessed in the design process.

Therefore, projects must include detailed studies of future sea level rise, seabed geotechnical conditions and land subsidence, coastal flooding and many other conditions to avoid unexpected risks.

For example, reclaimed Dutch coastlines are exposed to severe weather conditions, but they have been designed to minimise the risk of flooding, even in areas that need to be exposed like the Port of Rotterdam.

Can reclamation be done safely and sustainably with minimal impact to the environment?

Yes, it can be done safely and with minimal – and even positive – impact if appropriate site selection, master planning and support studies are carried out. These should include detailed assessment of social and economic, environmental, and physical aspects.

There are many methods to make reclamation more sustainable and these include long-term data collection through surveys and remote sensing, and numerical modelling to identify opportunities and minimise potential impacts both when the project is in place and during construction works.

In addition, over the last few decades, concepts like ‘working with nature’ have been introduced, whereby the developments are designed based on natural principles that mimic nature to identify win-win opportunities to create new environments that can enhance the project and create multi-purpose developments.

A key to successful coastal development is to utilise the marine environment to the benefit of the project. It is relevant to establish the marine forces, such as waves and tides, as a way to maintain high quality development including artificial beaches lagoons, wetlands and mangrove forests instead of seeing these forces as something to protect against during extreme events.

Coastal environments are transient, continuously reshaped by the natural forces of waves, tides, surges, erosion and deposition. To be sustainable, coastal developments must be designed and implemented with a clear understanding and respect for local natural processes.

Working with nature-based solutions in addition to conventional approaches based on a thorough understanding and detailed analysis of the various processes and phenomena is key in providing optimal solutions to complex problems.

It is also key to engage with stakeholders to get their views, concerns, and expectations. Creating good reclamation developments takes time.

Do reclamation projects have a future in the climate change agenda?

There has been a historical need for human beings to develop and progress, and usually this requires new land particularly in highly developed areas. Created land or reclaimed land can provide benefit in terms of economic gains and in terms of community living.

However, for these developments to be successful, projects have to be properly designed and implemented.

A reclamation project, if properly done, can contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as:

  • SDG 11: – Sustainable cities and communities: New developments allow new economic opportunities for people thus improving incomes and sustaining the local community
  • SDG 13 – Climate action: The design of the reclamation considers future climate change, particularly sea level rise and changes in weather conditions and may serve to protect existing coastlines behind them
  • SDG 14 – Life below water: A development with better control and reduction of pollution sources can improve water quality and encourage better environmental care
  • SDG 15 – Life on land: Better living environment encourages better environmental care and opportunities to create new life such as mangrove areas or natural wetlands
  • SDG 17 – Partnership for the goals: Creation of land and new opportunities can lead to the development of partnerships to achieve several beneficial goals to the community
This interview with Dr Juan Savioli, head of DHI Water and Environment Malaysia’s coastal and marine department, first appeared on The Star. Reproduced with permission.