Land reclamation is the process of creating new land from oceans, riverbeds, or lake beds. The method generally involves filling the area with a large number of heavy rocks and/or cement, then filling it with clay and dirt until the desired height is reached. The process is called “infilling”. The best example of this is Mumbai which used to be an archipelago. Such land is highly susceptible to soil liquefaction during earthquakes, which can amplify the amount of damage that occurs to buildings and infrastructure. Subsidence i.e. sinking of the ground is another issue, such land is susceptible to. Land Reclamation has several ill effects for the environment such as disruption of the food chain, decrease in quality of water, loss of coastal ecosystems, etc. There are few to no laws for land reclamation in India. This paper shall dwell on the impact of land reclamation and the required regulations for the same.
Technologies used within our environment are today a quintessential aspect of our life. These technological accessories and machineries are located in our homes, offices, hospitals, laboratories, libraries, farms and every other place in our environmental premises, such technological accessories and machinery consume huge quantities of energy, but as a whole are not operating at optimal efficiency. One of the gravest of all such technological accessories today is also theland that we live on.
Land reclamation is the gain of land from the sea, or wetlands, or other water bodies, and restoration of productivity or use of lands that have been degraded by human activities or impaired by natural phenomena. Land Reclamation is seen usually undertaken in island countries or countries which have a coastline. It is also an important activity in themining industry as the mine is filled after it is mined to exhaustion. Island nations are largely hit by the ill effects of melting ice-bergs which potentially leads to sinking, for which reclamation remains the priority one solution. Reclamation is seen as a milestone solution for urbanisation whileMumbai is our guiding illustration in this regard. States like Singapore have substantially altered their maps and the length of their coastlines by employing methods of reclamation.
Requisite changes and implementation of the same is required to bring laws and prevailing situation to the same footing.The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (hereinafter referred to as “UNCLOS”) definition of an island is not fit to address the technological advancement that mankind has made and warrants urgent amendment.
TheAztec tribe of Mexico is noted to be one the earliest users of the techniques of reclamation of land for agriculture in the 15th and 16th centuries. Their geography was of wetlands, they would sow crops on floating surfaces made of wood tied together as though boats to the anchor or which would be taken out and it would be taken along to other wetlands if the movement was necessitated.
However, in modern times, land reclamation is for more than just agriculture. There can be a number of methods that are adopted for the reclamation of land. Out of these, thesimplest and hence the most widely used is the one called ‘infilling’ while the material used is called ‘infill’. The method involves filling the area with clay and dirt up to the desired height. Submerged wetlands are often drained for reclamation of land for agricultural use. Deep cement mixing is used to displace the material which is either dredged or drained.
Land dredging is also another method of land reclamation. Sand and silt settle downstream of a water body and the same is removed from the bottom of the waterbody. Sedimentation, a natural process that naturally fills channels and harbours, is widely employed to preserve reclaimed land masses.
The most pragmatic way of envisioning Land Reclamation is how Lord Ram bridged India and Sri Lanka. In modern times, similarly the Palm Jumeirah Island in Dubai has been made, or for instance Singapore.Singapore began its experiment with reclamation when it observed the steep growth of its population, thegovernment undertook reclamation to supplement the available commercial, residential, industrial, and governmental properties along with thepreservation of local historic and cultural communities. Now Singapore has grown22% in landmass by undertaking reclamation and plans on growing7%-8% further by 2030.
Pictorial Representation of Land in Malaysia and Singapore
Case Study: Mumbai
Until the 1680s, Mumbai was an archipelago. In 1662, the British took possession of the islands of Bombay, which included Colaba, Old Women’s Island, Bombay, Mazgoan, Parel-Sewree-sion, Mahim, and Worli, as part ofCatherine of Braganza’s dower to a Portuguese King. The East India Company relocated its headquarters from Surat to Bombay in 1667. The population of Bombay grew as a result of massive port-related activity, as did the demand for commercial space.
To weld these islands which could be crossed over during low tide together, four raised causeways were constructed between 1784 and 1845. These were the Hornby Vellard, Duncan Causeway, Mahim Causeway and Colaba Causeway. After these, smaller plans were undertaken like those of Nagpada scheme, Frere Estate, Ballard Estate etc where embankments were built, hills were flattened and the rubble was dumped into the marsh.
In 1864, the Back Bay Reclamation Company won the right of reclamation the Western foreshore from the tip of Malabar hill to the end of Colaba. Bombay being a part of the Western Ghats, had hills that were levelled. A successful reclamation project was undertaken by the Bombay Port Trust, which built a dry dock between 1914 and 1918, subsequently, the famous Marine Drive of Bombay was developed. This project changed the entire face of Bombay to make it look like as it is today. More land in Bombay became habitable and the terrain flattened out as, one by one, hills were broken up and dumped into the sea.
Bombay before Reclamation
Bombay after Reclamation
Mumbai is seen as the best and the most positive example of land reclamation but this has led to many issues in Mumbai like erosion of land and shifting of plates making Mumbai moresusceptible to Floods and Earthquakes.
Several problems arise from Mumbai’s misplaced reclamation. For instance, the natural coasts which are humanly inhabited more than oftendescend diagonally into the sea/ocean. The angle of descent is vital when ascertaining the possibility of flooding at a level of the earth. The coast of Mumbai at Marine drive is perpendicular to the sea. This causes the smallest of high tides to be able to sweep over Bombaycausing the annual floods. Further, the unscientific and haphazard measures that were adopted for the reclamation of land have changed the very nature of the land. The rampant increase in the built-up area of the city hasadversely impacted the city’s ecology and itscoastline. The planners of the city in the process of housing construction and setting up of industries, choked the waterways especially, the Mithi River that allowed the accumulated rainwater to drain out previously and drastically reduced them as well.
TheRamsar Convention was a convention signed in Iran in 1971 regarding Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat. India is a signatory to the same and is aimed at safeguarding the wetlands of the world. In response to the same, the Ramsar Convention,Wetland Rules, 2010 were framed and wetlands were identified. Despite these rules, unrestrained reclamation activities are being undertaken.
The Bombay High Court inVanashakti & Ors. v. Union of India dealt with a PIL filed by concerned citizens against rampant reclamation and destruction of Wetlands in Mumbai which is in complete contravention to the Wetland Rules, 2010 and also the Environment Protection Act, 1986. The Land mass of Mumbai is sensitive, it isknown to be one of the only cities to inhabit a national park within its premises, the only other likeliness is in Rio de Janeiro which inhabits the Tijuca National Park. Taking note of the serious situation the High Court ordered:
That, no permission shall be granted for any reclamation of land and any kind of construction to the Wetland Areas identified by the Central Government, whether or not the state decided to adopt the Wetland Atlas prepared by the Central Government or chooses to prepare their own brief. That, for any such permission leave of the High Court is imperative and no City civil Courts shall entertain any such application. That, appropriate action also was needed to prevent misuse of wetlands owned and possessed by the Central Government. The Court also made a list of locations where reclamation and destruction of mangroves were being carried out and action was sought against those responsible. A continuing mandamus was issued which is in order as of now as well.
Despite continuous follow-up by the High Court there have been multiple contraventions of the Wetland Rules and the mandamus by the High Court. In the pastvarious committees have given reports on measures needed to fix Mumbai’s traffic and housing issues.
International Reclamation Cases
Reclaimed land has been an irksome issue for many nations, especially island nations. For instance, the rapid growth of Singapore’s territory is a point of concern forMalaysia which shares boundaries with it and is averse to such usurpation of the ocean by its neighbour. Further, Malaysia is also an interested party being a supplier of infills to Singapore despite being short on infills itself and has recentlybanned the import of infills.
The International Court of Justice, ICJ is the principalJudicial organ of the UN. It sets codes that the International Law Commission puts into effect and are recognized facts of International Law and its practice. However, Land Reclamation is yet to be addressed fully. One of the only international cases related to land reclamation is that of thePhilippines v. China.
China had undertaken reclamation in the South China Sea changing their map and adversely affecting the rights of the Philippines. As per UNCLOS, an Arbitral Tribunal was constituted under Annex VII to theUnited Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982. The Permanent Court of Arbitration dealt with this matter in the case ofThe South China Sea Arbitration analysed the matter primarily underSection 123 of the UNCLOS. The Philippines alleged that China had inflicted severe harm on the marine environment by constructing artificial islands and engaging in extensive land reclamation at seven reefs in the Spratly Islands, Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef (North), Johnson Reef, Hughes Reef, and Subi Reef. The Permanent Court of Arbitration held that though these constructions could not be termed as military installations but caused severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.China also permanently destroyed—through its land reclamation and construction of artificial islands, installations, and structures the natural condition of Mischief Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef (North), Johnson Reef, Hughes Reef, and Subi Reef.
Land reclamation is not legal by United Nations standards in any manner because there simply is no procedure outlined, neither is any agency put in place to ensure that the procedure is undertaken correctly and peacefully. This lack of law gives leeway to countries to usurp and infringe on international waters and move international boundaries inch by inch.
International Solutions Needed
Apart from the environmental aspect related to the degradation of the marine ecosystem, the issue of extension of national territories along coastlines needs an urgent solution. The UNCLOS is the fundamental convention concerning matters related to the sea and has a character of being the Constitution for the oceans. UNCLOS under partVIII- Regime of Islands discusses the determination of maritime jurisdiction vis-à-vis islands.
The UNCLOS underArticle 121 defines an island to be a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide. This definition is consistent with the1958 Convention on Continental Shelf. Article 121 excludes artificial islands and low-tide elevations from an ‘island status’, thus preventing usurpation of international waters orextension of the territorial sea by any artificial islands disguised as an ‘island’ under UNCLOS. The underlying intention is that man-made structures cannot affect international borders.
However, to skilfully contravene this definition, States extend their coastal borders thereby bringing more territory under their sovereignty and extorting international waters. Such reclamation requires accountability and categorisation. Demarcation of an upper limit to the expansion of coastal lines is required. Unless this demarcation is undertaken rich states can extend their territorial waters and proportionally also extend the commencement point of international waters. UNCLOS requires an amendment to firmly put that man-made structures do not hold the same status as that of the naturally formed islands.
Domestic Solutions Required
Foremostly, the Wetland Rules made keeping theRamsar Convention in view, need its due implementation. The notified wetlands of international importance require to be adopted by the states and centre and reclamation should be prohibited.
Secondly, any activities related to the scaling of the epidermis of the Earth to make for an infill must be followed by filling of the dug-up land to ensure that the plain of the Earth is restored. The Supreme Court took cognizance of this issue inTN Godavarman Thirumulpad v. Union of India and Ors commenting on repeated illegal mining and non-following of post dredging restoration of the ground leading to the Aravalli Hills being cut piece by piece and causing 31 hills to vanish. Hence, Reclamation of mined land meaning returning the mined-out land with useful life is pertinent. It implies restoring the land to its original form and productivity so that it is useful and in conformity with the prior use of the land.
Thirdly, since reclamation can have severe effects on the environment, Environment Impact assessments for such activities must be made mandatory. This ought to be accompanied by a strict floor index for the new proposed land as for housing and activities sanctioned to be performed.
The downsides of land reclamation are alarming and deserve the attention of the international community so that laws which set parameters and procedures in this regard. Land Reclamation also leads to marine pollution,London Convention 1970 pertains to the promotion of the effective control of all sources of marine pollution. Dredging and filling infills in the ocean/sea leads to marine pollution leading to the killing of the ecosystem of the particular area.
Land Reclamation has the potential of creating a buttery effect concerning floods and sinking of islands. The difference in international boundaries post reclamation, done by one coastal state, is a direct encroachment upon the right of the international community on international waters. It is even more iniquitous to landlocked states who have no oceans of their own, which those commonly shared are being appropriated. Each inch of non-naturally gained land is inversely related and proportional to floods and tsunami at some other island, as it is indispensably shifting the breath of the ocean towards the other side.
About the Author
Ms. Pallavi Supehia is an Assistant Manager (Legal) at IFFCO Tokio General Insurance Company Ltd.
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Preferred Method of Citation
Pallavi Supehia, “Understanding Land Reclamation: Impact on Domestic and International Projects” (IJPIEL, 24 January 2022).