China's bridge of size

It's 30 miles long, will cost £6.6bn to build, can handle earthquakes of magnitude 8.0, and withstand the impact of a 300,000-tonne vessel

Couples wander along Lovers' Promenade in Zhuhai, taking photographs against the backdrop of the gambling enclave of Macau, enjoying the view of the South China Sea. But within sight of the skyscrapers and casinos of Macau, a major transformation is taking place, and in six years' time when the couples look out, their holiday snaps will have a backdrop of the longest sea bridge in the world.

Building work has just started on the 30-mile Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which will link China's southern economic hub of Guangdong province to Hong Kong and Macau.

The scale is breathtaking. The bridge is one of the most technically complicated landmark projects in China's, and the world's, transport history. Not many bridges, for example, include a tunnel section that travels underwater. And it will bring economic ties closer in the region, underlining the Pearl River Delta's status as one of the world's great economic powerhouses.

Everyone is talking about it, from chief executives happy that it will boost the area around Zhuhai, which has been slightly neglected in favour of manufacturing zones like Shenzhen or Dongguan, to those living in the region who are keen to be able to see what is going on in the economic hotspots of Macau and Hong Kong.

But not everyone is as enthusiastic. Environmentalists are worried about the local dolphin population, while some Hong Kong residents fear that the bridge could mean travellers head straight past the former Crown colony without stopping.

Whatever the doubts, the size of the undertaking has given the bridge an unstoppable momentum of its own. When it is finished in 2016, the 73 billion yuan (£6.6bn) bridge will be a six-lane expressway that can handle earthquakes up to magnitude 8.0, strong typhoons and the impact of a 300,000-tonne vessel.

Traffic will travel at around 60mph, and it means that travelling between these economic powerhouses will only take half an hour, compared to three or four hours now. The vast manufacturing towns of the Pearl River Delta have been the engine of China's remarkable economic growth in the past three decades, and the whole region accounts for around 40 per cent of China's gross domestic product (GDP), so effective transport links are crucial.

The British-based engineering group Arup is doing design work for the project, and according to Naeem Hussain, Arup's global bridge leader, the difficulties are considerable. "The challenging part in terms of design was to trying to have the minimal environmental impact," said Mr Hussain, who is based in Hong Kong. "We have the white dolphin here and we wanted to make sure we don't impact the water flow. And also we wanted to ensure that the form of the construction doesn't pollute the water."

Environmentalists were angered when they heard of the decision to build a bridge across the natural habitat of the endangered white dolphin, known as "the panda of the ocean" because of its slim survival chances.

To try to preserve these imperilled creatures, the city of Zhuhai has set aside a preserve of 180 square miles to help the animal. There are about 2,000 white dolphins left in China, and more than half live in the Pearl River estuary. The builders have also tried to stop pollution in the area. "There is a submerged tunnel near Chep Lap Kok airport on Lantau island. You couldn't put a bridge with tall towers near the airport. The immersed tube is the longest in the world," said Mr Hussain.

Each of the bridge's piers will be 557ft high, and the design team has minimised the structure's impact on estuary flows by limiting the size and number of columns in the water. "Taking off from Hong Kong airport you will get a fantastic view. The bridge curves over 12.5 miles between Hong Kong and Zhuhai and Macau. We wanted each of the bridges to have their own elegant look but with a unifying visual look," he said.

The first stage of the project is a land reclamation, which will create a large artificial island off Zhuhai, one of two islands being made in the ocean for the project. This island will become the customs point for people crossing to Macau using the bridge.

Currently, most people crossing from Hong Kong to Macau use the ferry services, but they do not carry vehicles and are vulnerable during the typhoon season in the summer months, so the bridge is seen as a major impetus to commercial traffic between the two cities. It will also mean traffic is 24/7, whereas currently the border is closed at night.

The Hong Kong chief executive, Donald Tsang, is an enthusiastic backer of the plan because it will increase throughput there. But local opposition voices fear the effect will be to reduce passing trade. In some ways, the debate is similar to the angry voices when British road builders built bypass roads that meant some cities have lost a lot of relevance.

For the Chinese government, represented at the opening ceremony by a rising star of the Communist Party tipped to be the next premier, Li Keqiang, these fears mean nothing. People will just move, right?

The cost of the project will be shared among the central government in Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangdong provinces. It is a key element in a plan released by China's top economic planning authority, the National Development and Reform Commission, which aims to integrate Hong Kong and Macau into the Pearl River Delta area by 2020.

That development will be as visible on Hengqin Island as anywhere. Currently farmland and home to about 3,000 people, the development plan will see it transformed into a major business zone, at a cost of billions of yuan. The island's population is expected to increase to 280,000 by 2020. Still, if Lovers' Promenade may not be quite so intimate in a few years' time, it will certainly offer a spectacular view.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?