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Story Publication logo March 4, 2019

Dubai Has Palm Islands, but China Has a Sun, Moon, and Flower

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Land reclamation works are on-going at this area of Tuas, Singapore's westernmost area where a new massive container port—the world's largest in the next 30 years—is being built. The port authority is using materials dredged from the nearby seabed and earth excavated from tunneling work on a subway line to cut use of sand by about 70 per cent in the building of this pier—which will be one of four eventually. Singapore has been short of sand for its sizeable and continual land reclamation and construction…
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In scores of countries across the globe, a crisis is building around the world's most important and...

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Dubbed the Oriental Dubai, Phoenix Island is one of several land reclamation projects being developed on China’s southern coast. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Dubbed the Oriental Dubai, Phoenix Island is one of several land reclamation projects being developed on China’s southern coast. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.

Artificial islands have become an important marketing tool for cities in developing countries seeking to lure well-to-do Chinese residents and tourists. Dubai led the way at the turn of the century with a set of man-made formations arranged in the shape of a palm frond. China’s coastal provinces have seized on the trend with zeal. The country has reclaimed almost 420 square kilometers (162 square miles) in total from 2013 to 2016, according to China’s State Oceanic Administration. For reference, the island of Manhattan covers 59 sq. km.

(The figures quoted above don’t encompass China’s land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, where the country has used dredgers to turn reefs into islands big enough to accommodate military installations.)

Marketing materials for Ruyi Island depict a utopia for the wealthy. Artist renderings show families strolling marina boardwalks strung with fairy lights and villas nestled around lagoons lined with palm trees. Yet some five years after construction began, all that’s visible is a huge sandbank. The developer behind the project, Zhonghong Holdings Ltd., was fined 37 million yuan ($5.5 million) last year for illegal reclamation. The debt-laden firm was delisted from Shenzhen’s stock exchange at the end of last year and has been trying to sell the island to another developer. The company declined to comment. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Marketing materials for Ruyi Island depict a utopia for the wealthy. Artist renderings show families strolling marina boardwalks strung with fairy lights and villas nestled around lagoons lined with palm trees. Yet some five years after construction began, all that’s visible is a huge sandbank. The developer behind the project, Zhonghong Holdings Ltd., was fined 37 million yuan ($5.5 million) last year for illegal reclamation. The debt-laden firm was delisted from Shenzhen’s stock exchange at the end of last year and has been trying to sell the island to another developer. The company declined to comment. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.

For local governments and developers, reclamation has become a quick and cheap way to create a “blank slate” of space in one of the world’s fastest-urbanizing nations. Reclaimed land usually costs 140,000 yuan ($21,000) to 300,000 yuan per mu (15 mu equal one hectare, or just over 100,000 square feet). Plots of land in or near urban centers are at least 10 times more expensive.

Creation, however, is often accompanied by destruction. Coastal mangrove forests, which act as natural storm barriers and prevent soil erosion, have been wiped out in tropical areas in southern China; environmentalists blame dredging’s disruptive effect on fragile ecosystems. Coral reefs are also under threat.

Alarmed, Chinese officials began imposing bans on commercial reclamation activities in January and July of last year. Public infrastructure and national defense projects could continue, but many projects by private developers—several of which had never been officially approved—were suspended, pending investigations or ecological rehabilitation.

Ocean Flower Island is 1.4 times the size of Dubai’s famed Palm Jumeirah. The project has inflicted damage on a vast area of coral reef and a species of pearl oyster, according to a January 2018 report by a local environmental bureau. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Ocean Flower Island is 1.4 times the size of Dubai’s famed Palm Jumeirah. The project has inflicted damage on a vast area of coral reef and a species of pearl oyster, according to a January 2018 report by a local environmental bureau. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Developer Evergrande Group pledged 300 million yuan in March 2018 for ecological remediation. Some construction work was temporarily suspended but has now resumed. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Developer Evergrande Group pledged 300 million yuan in March 2018 for ecological remediation. Some construction work was temporarily suspended but has now resumed. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.

Several of the suspended projects are located in the waters surrounding Hainan, an island province at China’s southernmost point that aspires to be a major tourist destination. There, developers have created artificial islands in the shape of the moon, sun, and flowers to build condos and resorts targeting upper-middle-class Chinese. Here’s a more detailed look at the state of several developments in the Hainan area and elsewhere in China. —With assistance from Emma Dong and Cong Yan

Sun Moon Bay’s islands, in the shapes of the celestial bodies, cover about 1 sq. km. Work on the moon-shaped island began in 2015, without a thorough environmental assessment, according to Chinese media reports. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Sun Moon Bay’s islands, in the shapes of the celestial bodies, cover about 1 sq. km. Work on the moon-shaped island began in 2015, without a thorough environmental assessment, according to Chinese media reports. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Construction seemed to still be taking place in October 2018, when this photograph was taken. One of the developers, Sunac China Holdings Ltd., didn’t respond to requests for comment. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2018.
Construction seemed to still be taking place in October 2018, when this photograph was taken. One of the developers, Sunac China Holdings Ltd., didn’t respond to requests for comment. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2018.
Hainan’s first mega reclamation project was Phoenix Island. Development of the eastern side is complete, while work on the western side continues. Reclamation work along part of Phoenix Island came to a halt after a government inspection in late 2017 uncovered environmental damage including coastal erosion. Sanya Phoenix Island Development Co. says it has started remediation work as requested. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Hainan’s first mega reclamation project was Phoenix Island. Development of the eastern side is complete, while work on the western side continues. Reclamation work along part of Phoenix Island came to a halt after a government inspection in late 2017 uncovered environmental damage including coastal erosion. Sanya Phoenix Island Development Co. says it has started remediation work as requested. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Xiamen, a prosperous port city on China’s southeast coast across a strait from Taiwan, plans to double the size of a 13-sq.-km island called Dadeng to build a second airport. While Chinese media say the airport is due to be operational by 2020, local officials said in February that the central government has yet to approve it. The photo on the left shows layers of black bags of sand that form a cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out. On the right, the site of the future airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.
Xiamen, a prosperous port city on China’s southeast coast across a strait from Taiwan, plans to double the size of a 13-sq.-km island called Dadeng to build a second airport. While Chinese media say the airport is due to be operational by 2020, local officials said in February that the central government has yet to approve it. The photo on the left shows layers of black bags of sand that form a cofferdam—an enclosure built within a body of water to allow the enclosed area to be pumped out. On the right, the site of the future airport. Image by Sim Chi Yin/Magnum Photos. China, 2019.

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