HK Stranded! – ‘Asia’s World Low-lying City’

By Sophie Lam 23 August, 2022

Ready to swim from island-to-island when HK transport routes are submerged to rising seas? CWR’s Lam debunks dangerous myths to avoid a stranded island-city reality…

A climate event can wipe out 30% of Fiji’s GDP overnight; Singapore ‘is not taking any chances’ with coastal protection; HK must prioritise adaptation like all other islands
HK may be ‘hilly’ but HK Island will be stranded - all access points are low-lying; 50% of MTRs, 100% ferries & 3 harbour tunnels will be underwater as will our airport and ports
Must think grander to adapt ‘Asia’s world low-lying city’: HK should assess worst possible impacts & re-design local mobility to withstand accelerating coastal threats

I lead an island life. Every day I commute from Discovery Bay to Central by ferry. And if I’d miss the ferry to work, I’d walk two minutes from my home, hop on a public bus to Sunny Bay then take the MTR to Hong Kong Station. Back in university in the UK, I’d brag to my friends about how well connected, fast, and punctual the transport systems are in HK compared to the tube, rail, and bus in the UK.

However, all this convenience could come to an end if Hong Kong’s local mobility systems are not adapted for accelerating coastal threats.

HK’s well connected, fast & punctual transport systems could come to an end if not adapted to coastal threats

Many people forget that the HKSAR is made up of 250+ islands; Hawaii only has 137. All islands are vulnerable to sea level rise (SLR) and for those that are low-lying, their very existence is threatened. So why aren’t coastal threats the priority climate change conversation in HK?

Maybe it’s because of two myths – 1) Only “poorer” islands will feel the impact of rising seas and 2) HK is hilly and therefore we are safe from such coastal threats. But if we all continued to believe in such myths, we’d be ignorantly gambling our future away because our low-lying coastal city is extremely vulnerable to SLR. And unfortunately, the clock is ticking so let’s get to debunking these myths asap…

Myth 1: Only “poorer” islands will feel the impacts of rising seas

Reality: HK is no different to Fiji, Tonga, Maldives; even “rich” Singapore is adapting for rising seas…

Fiji’s Minister of Infrastructure and Meteorological Services said one climatic event can wipe out 30% of our [Pacific Island nations] GDP overnight at the ADB Asia Water Forum this month.

“one climatic event can wipe out 30% of out [Pacific Island nations] GDP overnight”…

..HK is no different with 82% of revenue on the line…

It dawned on me whilst listening to him that HK is no different from these Pacific Island nations. In fact, it could be worse for us, as up to 82% of HK government revenues are vulnerable to rising seas. Not to mention, lots of expensive real estate is at risk, being both low-lying and seafront properties along Victoria Harbor…yet, property buyers are still rushing to invest in such seafront real estate in HK whereas they would think twice about buying a seaside villa in Fiji, Tonga, or the Maldives because they worry that they will be submerged by rising seas. Clearly there’s a disconnect here.

We should be joining Tonga, Maldives, Samoa, and other island nations at COP rallying to fast track decarbonization to reduce these impacts as well as pushing international communities to step up adaptation financing. The G7 must be put under more pressure and HK must join in given the risks it’s facing. Especially since, the G7 still has not delivered on the US$100bn pledge to help poorer countries cut emissions, even though they are the ones to bear the brunt of climate impacts.

Rich island cities are also feeling the heat from SLR like Singapore. Hazel Khoo, Singapore’s Director in charge of coastal protection said “Sea level rise poses an existential threat for low lying nations and Singapore is not spared…” in CWR’s earlier discussions this year. They are also “not taking any chances and will treat coastal protection with utmost seriousness”.

As Asia’s premier financial hub, why isn’t HK capitalizing on adaption finance?

HK should do the same. But it is not. Instead HK is at risk because it is not adapting for the future – even though other similarly wealthy cities are. As Asia’s premier financial hub, surely HK should be in the driving seat of adaptation finance? CWR is based in HK, but the government has yet to tap our knowledge. Whereas, climate-ready Singapore approached us to curate a 2-hr session on “Futureproofing Cities To Avoid Atlantis”, involving 2 sessions: one specifically on Evolving finance – from stress testing to closing gaps in adaptation finance and the other Waterproofing cities – achieving transformative resilience.

This is a missed opportunity on a global stage. Inaction is simply not an option; myth 1 must be debunked asap.

Myth 2: HK is hilly and therefore we are safe from sea level rise

Reality: Hills won’t protect us if transport links are submerged, stranding entire islands – incl. HK Island

Even if we got past myth 1, myth 2 makes us complacent because HK is not “flat as a pancake” like Singapore. HK’s terrain is hilly – this is a fact. But it is also a fact that 27% of the population and 70% of commercial buildings are clustered in just 6% of HK’s land which is reclaimed, low-lying and along the shorelines. Plus, almost all infrastructure necessary for our basic needs are low-lying too – to find out more see our latest “Secure Basic Needs” factsheet.

27% of HK’s population & 70% of commercial buildings are clustered in just 6% of HK’s land along shorelines…

Maybe some of you have become complacent because you have adopted a mindset: “I live on the Peak/ Mid-Levels so sea level rise does not affect me”. Think again. Although your home may not be directly impacted because you live on higher ground or inland, how can you access your home – if all our roads, cross-harbor tunnels, MTR stations, and ferry terminals are underwater? How would you commute to work, visit your friends, buy groceries, or let alone get around the city if all these links are down?

…plus, 50% of MTR exists, 100% of ferry terminals & all 3 cross-harbor tunnels are highly exposed to SLR

Unfortunately, our domestic transport systems will be one of the first pieces of infrastructure to feel these drastic impacts. Our new Stay Connected! Don’t Get Stranded factsheet showcases that SLR will submerge 50% of MTR exits, 100% of ferry terminals, and all 3 cross-harbor tunnels if IPCC AR6 warnings become a reality and no holistic coastal defences are mounted.

We will also have trouble accessing our basic needs and trade. So we need to protect routes that lead to critical infrastructure too. Plus we could get hungry when ports & airports get stranded.

Finally, it is not just HK Island that will get cut off; but also our key Outlying Islands. Our factsheet shows that 15 of them will be stranded if they do not adapt – find out which ones here.

We must think grander; I don’t want to lose my island-city-paradise…

Accessibility, be it by road, rail, or ferry, these are arterial lifelines of a city. The city only works if they are all there. And because HK is made up of hundreds of islands, we cannot afford to let these links go underwater.

And go underwater they will, sooner than you think as coastal threats are only worsening and accelerating. Current global climate inaction means that our current emissions policy path is putting us on track for rapid SLR after around 2060.

This truly sucks. It will be in my lifetime and your children’s too.

HK should look to the worst possible impacts & needs to re-design local mobility systems

Coastal threats will inevitably redraw our entire coastline, disrupting access; so we must think grander. We should look to the worst possible impacts and re-design local mobility to withstand these so that we will continue to have a resilient transport system that will transport us around climate-proofed neighborhoods. Because frankly, I don’t want to be swimming from island-to-island when I’m 60.

Surely, all of us want to continue living an ‘island-life’ in our island-city-paradise. Nobody wants to be marooned like Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks in Castaway. Sure, HK is behind, but there’s no reason why we can’t get ahead. So get on top of what’s at risk with our “8-Factsheet Survival Guide for HK to survive rising seas” and let’s start adapting Asia’s world low-lying city!




Further Reading

  • Key Takeaways From Futureproofing Cities To Avoid Atlantis – Hard truths, disconnects & next steps on coastal protection & adaptation fund raising for the water & finance sectors were discussed at the CWR event at SIWW 2022. Get on top of what the experts said with our key takeaways
  • SIWW 2022 – 3 Key Takeaways – CWR was the thematic partner for Singapore International Water Week 2022. CWR’s Dawn McGregor shares what kept us busy from our seminar to interviewing 13 global water leaders, plus check out our key takeaways from the event
  • 3 First Steps To Protect HK From Rising Seas – The IPCC AR6 warnings on rising seas bring bad tidings for Hong Kong. If you are 20 & younger, HK could become the new Atlantis in your lifetime unless we take action now. See 3D maps of areas submerged and get on top of what you need to do to survive, adapt & thrive
  • Adapt or Die: 8 Things You Must Know for An Effective Resilience Roadmap – The IPCC AR6 WG2 report says there is still a narrowing window for us to act to limit impacts. To help get us to ‘climate resilient development’ & avoid maladaptation, CWR’s Debra Tan highlights 8 survival must knows from the report
  • Existential Coastal Threats: 8 Things You Must Know – Rapid SLR will happen sooner than we think, yet we are still driving investments to vulnerable locations. CWR’s Debra Tan shares 8 things you need to know about the existential threat from SLR – from glaciers in the mountains to ice sheets in our poles, permafrost + more

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Sophie Lam
Author: Sophie Lam
Sophie has recently graduated from the University of Exeter in the UK with a BA Honours Geography degree. Her final year modules focused on sustainability and environmental issues which she is keen to explore further as commences her journey into the workforce. Through joining CWR, Sophie has had an opportunity to apply her GIS knowledge on a project examining the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events on the critical infrastructure in the Asia Pacific region. Sophie hopes her participation in this project will facilitate better resilience planning and the management of risks presented by the challenges of climate change.
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