BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Christian groups and land-rights campaigners are petitioning the Hong Kong government to abandon a plan to develop artificial islands, saying it is unnecessary and could harm the environment.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam promised last month to boost the supply of land through reclamation and redevelopment, seeking to ease a chronic housing shortage.
The programme aims to develop artificial islands with a total area of about 1,700 hectares (4,200 acres) in the next 20 to 30 years to house about 1.1 million people.
Opponents to the plan, including several Christian groups, say the plan - estimated to cost up to HKUS$500 billion (US$64 billion) - is wasteful and potentially harmful to the environment.
"The problem is ineffective land use, not lack of land. It is irresponsible of the government to consider reclamation before using existing resources better," said Yip Po Lam of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese.
"The reclamation process can hurt the ecology, and the islands would be more vulnerable to climate change impacts, including storms and rising sea levels. The money is better spent on social welfare schemes to benefit more people."
Limited housing supply and large flows of capital from mainland Chinese buyers have pushed housing prices up 165 percent over a decade in Hong Kong, one of the world's most expensive property markets.
The city aims to increase the number of affordable flats by allocating more new land to public housing, including raising the ratio of public housing on newly developed land to 70 percent from 60 percent.
But analysts say it would take years for many of the government's measures to increase the land supply.
The government must explore all brownfield options before considering any greenfield projects, said Keith Au at advocacy group Hong Kong Land Justice League.
"Reclamation will only benefit developers and businesses," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"The government must hold public consultations before making a decision. It could be disastrous," he said.
Environmentalists say Hong Kong is one of the world's most vulnerable port cities and faces greater risks of flooding from stronger typhoons and higher storm surges.
Yip's organisation is part of a coalition of Catholic churches and Christian groups that will hold public hearings and organise online petitions to push the government to drop the plan, she said.
They draw their inspiration from Pope Francis, who wrote a major document in 2015 on protecting the environment from global warming and calling for an end to "obstructionist attitudes" that sometimes put profit before the common good.
"We believe we have a responsibility towards protecting the Earth and doing all we can to fight climate change," she said.
(US$1 = 7.83 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)