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Artificial Islands: Economic Promise Versus Environmental Peril

Lynetteholmen in Copenhagen.  ©News Oresund/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Lynetteholmen in Copenhagen. ©News Oresund/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Man-made islands are being built “on a scale never seen before,” Dr. Alastair Bonnett, geography professor at Newcastle University, UK, wrote in his 2020 book, Elsewhere: A Journey into Our Age of Islands.

In media interviews, like this one with the BBC, and in papers and books, Dr. Bonnett has explained why he thinks humankind has entered the “age of islands.”

But no one can fully predict the impact of these islands on geopolitical issues, the environment, tourism revenue, or overcrowded urban areas.

In fact, it is not always certain that artificial islands will be—or stay—usable. A Japanese airport built in 1994 on two man-made islands has sunk about 38 feet by 2018, and is continuing to slowly “subside,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Island Projects Abound

The lure of reclaiming land from water remains strong around the world.

One of the largest ongoing projects is the island of Lynetteholmen, off the coast of the Danish capital Copenhagen, that will be home to 35,000 people.

China is building artificial islands in the South China Sea to augment its military strength in the region and reinforce its claims to those portions of the sea.

In South Korea, the Incheon International Airport was built with tidal land between Yeongjong Island and Yongyu Island. It opened in 2001 and was recently named fourth best airport in the world, according to SkyTrax and the 2022/2023 World Airport Survey.

In the Middle East, the Palm Islands of Dubai were built to create more coastal real estate and attract tourists to the city.

There are also the proposed 1,000-hectare Kau Yi Chau artificial islands off the coast of Hong Kong and the Penang artificial islands project off the coast of Malaysia.

Struggles to Regulate Island Development

The construction of artificial islands is covered under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, article 47. This permits the construction of artificial islands by member nations in their own territories. However, there are restrictions particularly where these artificial islands impinge on maritime access and environmental considerations of neighboring countries. According to the Convention, the territorial sea of states is twelve nautical miles (Article 3). After this territory is the contiguous zone which is also up to twelve nautical miles (Article 33).

In articles of the convention pertaining to the exclusive economic zone, it is a principle of international economic and environmental law that countries that construct artificial islands should not invade shipping lanes or otherwise unduly affect their neighbors.

The difficulties of island-building can be seen in the Persian Gulf.

Proponents of artificial islands in the Gulf suggest that the region can be changed into a haven of peace and economic activity through tourism and other economic activity. However, according to a 2018 study in the Ukrainian Journal of Ecology, the region is one whose environmental conditions are both “special” and fragile.

[The Persian Gulf] island projects … would “destroy about 63 km­2 of the Persian Gulf ecosystem.”

“Each 4 to 5 years, its water changes, and any changes in the form of the sea will have unpleasant impacts on all coastal states,” says the study’s authors, who list water turbidity, the suffocation of the local wildlife, a change in coastal sediments, and the transformation of sands into a swamp as potentially adverse outcomes. The study also estimates that should all the artificial island projects go forward, it would “totally destroy about 63 Km2 of the Persian Gulf ecosystem.”

Coral reefs (in pale green) in the Persian Gulf in 2002.  ©Image by Jesse Allen. NASA/Wikimedia. Public Domain
Coral reefs (in pale green) in the Persian Gulf in 2002. ©Image by Jesse Allen. NASA/Wikimedia. Public Domain

China’s Islands Projects Face Criticism

Concerns have also been raised about the Kau Yi Chau project in Hong Kong, where the government has proposed to construct three artificial islands.

Edwin Law Che-fen, executive director of The Green Earth, says in a letter, “Carbon emissions arising from reclamation and building public facilities, such as bridges to connect the 1,000-hectare Kau Yi Chau artificial islands, will be enormous compared to the baseline, which is zero.” He continues, “If the climate impact of this project were to be assessed, it would most likely be found to affect the city’s 2050 carbon neutrality goal, not to mention the impact of harsher weather on more than 7 million Hongkongers.” He added, “The EPD’s [Environmental Protection Department] refusal to incorporate climate impact assessments into the EIA ordinance implies that the artificial island development will work against carbon neutrality.”

Elsewhere in the South China Sea, China is building “airstrips, ports, and other facilities on disputed islands and reefs,” which are destroying key coral reef ecosystems. They also heighten the risks of a fisheries collapse in the region.

Satellite imagery shows that China has so far constructed seven artificial islands in the Spratlys, with three of them designed as military bases. Nearly six square miles of artificial islands have been built on disputed reefs in the sea, primarily in the greater Spratly Islands, according to a 2016 study by four researchers, including John McManus, professor of marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami. The study indicates that the total damage from island building and dredging has already affected “more than 10 percent” of the islands’ total shallow reef area.

[McManus’s] study indicates that the total damage from island building and dredging has already affected more than 10 percent of the islands’ total shallow reef area.

Denmark Promotes Island as ‘Green’ Solution

Meanwhile, Copenhagen’s €2.7 bn ($2.9 bn) “green” island Lynetteholmen project is also facing a backlash from environmentalists.

The island is meant to protect the Danish capital from floods and provide housing. However, critics say there is no evidence Lynetteholmen will help achieve those kinds of goals.

Ole Damsgaard, vice chair of the NGO Danmarks Naturfredningsforening (Danish Society for Nature Conservation), says the project’s impact on the environment and the climate wasn’t sufficiently assessed at the outset. This, he said, was because the project’s initial environmental impact assessment, which was required under EU law, only evaluated the impacts of the deposit of soil needed for construction, and not for the infrastructure projects relating to the island. Lynetteholmen risks reducing water flow into the Baltic Sea, harming the ecosystem’s biodiversity, he said.

Construction of the foundation should be finished by 2035. However, even if things go according to plan, the whole project won’t be fully completed until 2070, according to some estimates.

Malaysian Project Creates Controversy

Meanwhile, in Penang, the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group is the lead masterplan designer for the Penang project, which plans construction of three artificial islands at the southern tip of Penang Island.

Environmentalists, fishermen, nature lovers, and Penang’s prominent civil society groups are up in arms over the project, and in May, the Consumers Association of Penang urged the state government to rethink the reclamation, “even in a scaled-down form.”

Dubai’s Ambitious ‘World’ Island Project Makes Progress

Villas at the Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara.  ©ACCS2020/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Villas at the Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara. ©ACCS2020/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Perhaps the most famous artificial archipelago is Dubai’s World Islands, built about 2.5 miles off the city’s coast. The project consists of seven sets of islands symbolizing the seven continents, Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, and South America. The Anantara World Islands Resort opened in January 2022.

The World Islands project was temporarily put on hold during a financial crisis, but a scaled-down version is now being constructed. The Kleindienst Group, which is developing luxury villas and hotels on the island, says that its project will be completed by 2026. The group is the largest European property developer operating in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Its $5 billion luxury “Heart of Europe” project on Dubai’s World Islands includes almost fifty floating “seahorse” villas as well as palaces with private beaches.

“Everything that’s consumed [on the World] gets shipped in.”

Criticism of the project flared up in 2018 when one of the floating villas sank into the sea, near the Burj Al Arab. Others question the sustainability of these islands. “Everything that’s consumed [on the World] gets shipped in,” Jim Krane, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, told the Financial Times.

The World Islands project remain the most ambitious of the artificial island projects in the region. Dubai’s three other artificial islands—Palm Islands: Palm Jumeirah, Deira Island, and Palm Jebel Ali—are in various stages of completion.

Palm Jumeirah, which began construction in 2001 and was completed in 2006, welcomed its first residents in 2007. This was followed by Palm Deira, which opened in January 2020. Palm Jebel Ali’s progress has been less straightforward. Construction stopped in 2009, only to be subsequently re-launched. In January 2023, it was reported to be in the final stages of construction with Dubai’s real estate giant, Nakheel, seeking contractors to complete the reclamation works.

Marine scientists and others are keeping an eye on the effects of artificial islands on coral reefs. Satellite information, computer-modeling data, and previous studies of human impacts on coral reefs show that damage is being done to coral reefs in the Spratlys.

Deep-water dredging is also lowering the existing seafloor, changing wave patterns, and inhibiting the growth of the red algae that are essential to reef calcification and sedimentation.

Governments and project managers who back these developments will need to carefully consider whether the potential for environmental damage done by artificial islands outweighs their potential for economic benefits.


*Nnamdi Anyadike is an industry journalist specializing in metals, oil, gas, and renewable energy for over thirty-five years.


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