China to span an economic divide

Work has started on what will be the world's longest bridge to link the finance, manufacturing and tourism hubs of Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau.

Workers take part in an opening ceremony in Zhuhai, China, as construction begins on the bridge between Guangdong province to Hong Kong and Macau. The bridge will drastically reduce driving times.
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Couples wander along the seafront in Zhuhai, a mainland Chinese city just across the border from the former Portuguese colony of Macau, taking photographs and enjoying the view of the South China Sea.

Close to where they are taking their holiday snaps, within sight of the skyscrapers and casinos of Macau, a major transformation is taking place. Building work has just started on the longest bridge in the world, the 50-kilometre Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, which will link China's southern economic hub of Guangdong province to Hong Kong and Macau. The bridge, which comprises three above-water links forming a "Y" shape and one tunnel, has been hailed as one of the most technically complicated landmark projects in China's transport history. It is widely expected to strengthen economic ties in the region, and boost the Pearl River Delta's (PRD) status as one of the world's great economic powerhouses.

The vast manufacturing towns of the PRD have been the engine room behind China's remarkable economic growth in the past three decades, and the region accounts for about 40 per cent of China's GDP. When it is finished in 2016, the 73 billion yuan (Dh39.25bn) bridge will be a six-lane expressway designed to withstand earthquakes of up to magnitude 8 on the Richter scale, typhoons with 200kph winds and even being struck by ships of up to 300,000 tonnes. A 35km stretch will be over open water and the whole complex will have a service life of 120 years.

Traffic speed on the bridge will be limited to 100kph and travel time should be cut from three or four hours to about 30 minutes between most of the densely populated centres of manufacturing, finance and tourism located in and around Guangdong and Hong Kong. Visitors can see Macau from the seafront where sightseers gather, and crossing into the former Portuguese enclave, which was returned to Chinese rule 10 years ago, is via a border crossing just a few hundred metres away.

The first stage of the project is land reclamation, which will create an artificial island of around 216 hectares off Zhuhai. This island will become the customs point for people travelling into Macau via the bridge. It is one of two islands being created for the project. Currently, most people crossing from Hong Kong to Macau use the ferry services, but these do not carry vehicles and are vulnerable during typhoon season in the summer months. The bridge should boost commercial traffic between the two cities and it will provide 24-hour access, whereas currently the border is closed at night.

"Through a more convenient traffic and transportation network, Hong Kong's financial, tourism, trade, logistics and professional services can be better radiated to the Pan-Pearl River Delta area to the west of the PRD," said the Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang at the project's inauguration ceremony last month, and he added that it would also benefit the development of key industries in the city.

The ceremony was also attended by the vice premier of China, Li Keqiang, one of the rising stars in the Chinese Communist Party who is tipped to be the next premier. "It is of great significance to maintain long-term prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macau, and enhance overall competitiveness in the region," Mr Li said. Pollution is a major problem along the southern coast, and the construction project will aim to impact the fragile ocean ecology, including the pink dolphins in the South China Sea, as little as possible.

The cost of the project will be covered by 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 PRD by 2020. One of the most important elements of the bridge construction plan is the development of the Zhuhai area - the bridge will link 146 islands in Zhuhai to Macau.

The biggest of these is Hengqin Island, which is currently used for farming and is home to about 3,000 people. Under the development plan, Hengqin will be transformed into a major business hub, becoming China's third state-level strategic new zone, in the same mould as Shanghai's Pudong District and Tianjin's Binhai New Area. The government is spending billions of yuan on upgrading infrastructure on the island, and there will also be a new commercial centre built there.

The island's population is expected to increase to 120,000 by 2015 and 280,000 by 2020, and industries there will include business services, leisure, tourism, education, research and development, and technology. The idea of a bridge joining the cities has been around for some 25 years and the entrepreneur Sir Gordon Wu, the chairman of Hong the Kong-based property and management giant Hopewell Holdings, has been one of the one of the main proponents of the project.

The international engineering group Arup is involved in the bridge design. Naeem Hussain, Arup's leader of global bridge business, told the New Civil Engineer magazine how the bridges would cross three navigation channels while the tunnel would go under a fourth channel, which is too close to the Hong Kong International Airport at Chek Lap Kok to allow a bridge section to be built. "The immersed tube is the longest in the world at 5.5 kilometres long," he added.

He said the bridge piers would be 170 metres high and that the design team had minimised the structures' impact on estuary flows by limiting the size and number of supporting columns in the water. "The bridge will be quite visible to anyone taking off from the airport - it's at the mouth of the delta so it will be seen from land, from Zhuhai, Macau and Hong Kong. "We want visual continuity between the tunnel and the facilities on the reclaimed land and the bridges. The centralised towers have a slim, elegant look. We don't have huge A-frame towers," he said.

In six years' time, when the couples on the waterfront of Zhuhai look out to sea, they will have a very different backdrop indeed for their holiday snaps.