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Some of the world's most fascinating sci-fi islands

Need a new runway, hotel or even a city, but don’t have the space? Just make one from reclaimed land brought up from the deep, say experts. Friday investigates the man-made islands that are reshaping the map

  • The Lilypad
    The Lilypad was designed by awardwinning architect Vincent Callebaut.Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The Lilypad
    Land reclamation in the UAE typically involves scraping up sand from the sea bed and redistributing it where iImage Credit: Supplied picture
  • The Lilypad
    One load lifted by modern dredgers is equal to thousands of truck loads of sand.Image Credit: Supplied picture

A little more than a decade ago, the only way to jet into Hong Kong was past the city centre’s skyscrapers, your pilot nimbly steering his 400 tonnes of fuel and steel past windows you could actually peer into and watch locals sitting down to their dinner.

Today you land on a man-made strip of land that was once just water. This runway has added around one per cent to Hong Kong’s total surface area. It was good news for the residents, great news for nervous passengers, and this magnificent feat of engineering – which is considered one of the top ten construction achievements of the 20th century – helped set the stage for 15 years of high-profile building projects that have seen hundreds of square kilometres of land rise up from the deep.

“Hong Kong was the landmark moment,” says Wim Dhont, Middle East area manager for Belgian firm Jan De Nul, one of the world’s leading land reclamation specialists. “It was the one that really got people talking, and I think in the coming years we’re only going to see a lot more.”

If anyone should know, it’s Wim: not only did his company assist with the construction of the island on which Hong Kong’s new airport was made, but it also helped reshape the coast of Dubai. It built the Palm Jebel Ali and there have been other projects in the Gulf, too.

“Land reclamation is a cost-effective solution to overcrowding,” says Wim. “Cities have developed close to the sea because you have trade and activity there, and also because people like to live near the water. But many cities just can’t expand any further on land.” And so, he says, where once there was blue, in the future we’re going to see a lot more green.

Throw floating landmasses and islands on stilts into the mix, and the atlas as we know it is about  to change forever. At the end of 2010, British travel operators Thomson published a report on the future of travel and it did exactly what the company hoped it would do – it provided countless column inches in print media.

It wasn’t so much the words that caught people’s attention, it was the images the architects had come up with. The future of travel, it seemed, was not about spending a week next to the sea – it promised to actually put you on it.

One of the company’s more striking designs was a multi-storey hotel on stilts that would stand in the shallows of any picturesque bay that holidaymakers were likely to fly to. An even more visually stunning idea was an artist’s impression of how the famously crowded Monaco might look in 2030.

Anchored in the shallows several hundred metres from the shore, two huge multi-levelled, circular floating resorts, several hectares each, transformed the millionaires’ playground quite spectacularly. That concept was called the Lilypad.

While the architect’s drawings might have seemed little short of wishful thinking – or even sci-fi – they may have more in common with current thinking than you imagine. As the UAE, Hong Kong and countless other places have proved, the sea is there for the taking.

Based on the design of a lily pad, these mammoth floating islands could be used by people whose homes have been swallowed up by rising sea waters. According to experts, major cities including London, New York and Tokyo are at risk from oceans, which could rise by as much as 1m by the end of this century.

Hope for climate refugees

The Lilypad concept, by the award-winning Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut, is designed to be a new place to live for those whose land has been wiped out or are at risk. Similar concepts have been in the news again during the past few months as possible solutions to the problem of rising sea levels, which threaten to one day engulf the Maldives, Tuvalu and other low-lying island nations.

Kiribati’s President Anote Tong recently said that he was seriously looking at a series of islands on stilts as an answer to his country’s problems. “The last time I saw the models,” he said, “I was like, ‘Wow, it’s like science fiction. So modern, I don’t know if our people could live on it.’ But what would you do for your grandchildren? If you’re faced with the option of being submerged, would you jump on an oil rig like that?” he says.

The answer, he concluded, was a resounding ‘yes’. For a nation rarely more than several metres above sea level, a drastic solution is clearly needed. Unfortunately, Kiribati would need international assistance to turn its island-on-stilts project into a reality as it comes with a hefty $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) price tag – a tidy sum for the tiny island nation.

Facing a similar conundrum is the government of the Maldives, who have started a joint venture with a Dutch firm called Dutch Docklands to build the world’s largest series of floating islands.

Manufactured in India and the Middle East, the idea is to tow the islands to the Maldives and anchor them in place. Paul van de Camp, CEO of Dutch Docklands, says, “We told the president of the Maldives that we can transform you from climate refugees to climate innovators.”

The first phases of the project involve the creation of The Ocean Flower – 185 stunning waterfront homes connected along a flower-shaped quay – and a floating golf course, which is set to be built on several islands linked by tunnels.

Other islands, if all goes to plan, will follow, and will create 800 hectares of new land. While this is music to the ears of tourists to one of the world’s most beautiful destinations, it could be even better news for locals because part of the dream is that affordable floating houses may be built on the land.

The government of Hong Kong came up with a list of ideas to ease overcrowding on the tiny island. It wants to create 1,500 hectares of land to provide homes for millions more people, and up to 25 new man-made concrete islands are being considered.

Though controversial – and far from finalised – the plan would almost certainly achieve what the government set out to do and create vast swathes of new living space – and relatively inexpensively, too. “One of the great attractions to planners is that land reclamation is cheap,” says Wim. “Per square metre, you’d pay half the price than to develop on land, or even less.”

Other notable man-made island projects currently on the table include an airport in the Thames Estuary east of London, which has been nicknamed ‘Boris island’, thanks to its backing by London Mayor Boris Johnson, and the Ocean Reef project in Panama City.

For the Ocean Reef project, the plan is to create two new islands that will be linked to the mainland. These will have 138 luxury apartments and a marina. According to industry website, these will be the first man-made islands in Latin America. Land reclamation in the water around heavily populated areas is a boon to planners. As long as you’re not going too deep, new land can be created almost anywhere.

Thousands of trucks full of sand

“When dredging, typical depths are minus 10m, which is easily feasible,” says Wim. “If you go to minus 20m, which we have done in the past, you need to double the amount of sand you need, and the cost increases.”

He says Dubai is ideal. “It has a vast shallow coast, which deepens very gradually,” he says. Land reclamation in the UAE typically involves scraping up sand from the sea bed and redistributing it where it is needed. Islands, as we’ve seen, can take shape surprisingly quickly.

“On modern dredgers one load can equate to thousands of trucks full of sand,” says Wim. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Jan De Nul was founded in Belgium; the low-lying countries of western Europe have become masters of the game when it comes to holding back water and re-distributing sand. Today, many of the world’s big dredging firms are based there or in neighbouring Netherlands.

“I don’t know why the area has come to dominate in the field,” says Wim. “But it could be because the North Sea brings in a lot of silt and sand every year, so even back in the medieval days a lot of work was done to try and deal with that. Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent were important points of trade in the 14th and 15th centuries, and they invented the tools they needed to continue their trade and deal with the silt. That could be an explanation.”

For now, Jan de Nul is busy on contracts in Australia and Brazil, but in the future Wim hopes to bring his big boats and maps around the world to create vast artistic islands made from sand.