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Definition: land reclamation from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Conversion of derelict or otherwise unusable areas into productive land. For example, where industrial or agricultural activities, such as sand and gravel extraction or open-cast mining, have created large areas of derelict or waste ground, the companies involved are usually required to improve the land so that it can be used.

Summary Article: Land Reclamation
From Encyclopedia of Environment and Society

LAND RECLAMATION IS both the creation of solid land from swamps and other watery areas and the restoring of polluted land to either a natural or usable state. The practice of land reclamation has been a human activity from early in human history.

The creation of new solid land from watery areas has usually been accomplished by filling in swamps or wetlands. Many famous cities are the products of at least some land reclamation. For example parts of New York City, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, the Chicago shoreline, and the Back Bay area of Boston are all larger in area than they would be if some areas of marsh or wetlands had not been filled to produce solid land for building.


Often areas that have been reclaimed have first been drained or filled to create farmland. Areas of Florida, some of the Dismal Swamp in Virginia, and some of the wetlands in Louisiana have been drained or filled in order to make them suitable for farming.

Louisiana and eastern Arkansas are major rice growing areas in what were originally swampy areas. The broad flat lands in the rice growing areas are amenable to the use of machinery, which has substantially lowered the cost of rice production making it profitable to sell in the international market.

These rice production areas replace the older rice growing area in South Carolina, which was worked by hand by slaves until emancipation took effect in 1865. The area was eliminated as a rice growing area because the labor cost to work the area was too high. Some areas have been allowed to revert to their natural wetlands state.

The draining of swampy areas for conversion to farmland also destroys areas of wildlife habitat. Often the affected wildlife can relocate to areas near the farmed or inhabited areas. In some cases wildlife adapts to the human presence without significant harm.

Sometimes the destruction of wildlife habitats is the specific purpose of the land reclamation; areas are drained to eliminate health hazards, such as in the exercise of mosquito control. Without this destruction of the wet mosquito breeding grounds, many human populations would be destroyed by malaria, yellow fever, West Nile fever, or other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.


Historically land reclamation has been accomplished in river deltas. The famous deltas of the Nile and the Rhine are places where reclamation has turned marshes and swamps into working farms. For example, the Marsh Arabs, who live in the swampy delta area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Tigris-Euphrates alluvial salt marsh, which is surrounded by desert, use the area for producing crops. Sometimes they create islands upon which to build their houses and livestock sheds. Unlike some other delta regions, they have not sought to completely drain their swamp because it has provided them protection from enemies. Invasion of an enormous swamp by people who are accustomed to desert warfare is a technical challenge that historically most potential enemies have avoided. In another example, the Seminole Native Americans in Florida have utilized their swampy regions in ways similar to the Marsh Arabs. They have reclaimed small areas, but otherwise have generally used their wetlands as a natural defense barrier and as a source of livelihood.


In some areas of the world, land reclamation has taken the form of the creation of artificial islands. Artificial island creation was practiced by the Aztecs before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. In modern times, artificial islands have been created in areas where the scarcity of land makes it necessary to create them for use as airports and other building projects. For example, Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, and the Hong Kong International Airport are built upon artificial islands.

The high-rise Burj al-Arab—known for being shaped like a billowing sail—stands on an artificial island reclaimed from the sea just off of the coast of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. One of the most amazing modern artificial island creations is also currently under development in Dubai. The Palms is a virtual archipelago of residential islands that have been created by pumping sand into containers that are then fixed as islands. Together the islands form the shape of a palm tree.

Even more ambitious are the nearby World Islands off of Dubai; this collection of artificial islands will be shaped like the continents of the world. When finished, the 300 small, private islands will feature private homes, offices, and other dwellings that will cover an area 5.4 miles by 3.6 miles in length. A seawall will surround the oval island group.


In the Netherlands more than a quarter of the country is below sea level and over 60 percent of the Dutch people live in flood prone areas. Historically, the country has been plagued by flooding rivers or incursions by the sea. In an ongoing struggle against the sea, the Dutch have created the Zuyder Zee and Delta Projects. The Zuyder Zee Project began in 1930 with the enclosure of a vast area by the Afsluitdijk (closure-dike). Eventually the area changed from an inland sea into a freshwater lake.

By the 1950s, these areas were drained and the land reclaimed for farming, housing, and other uses. The Delta Project was instituted after great sea storms broke open the dykes in 1953, causing great flooding. Through this project, some of the area has been preserved as a shellfish habitat by the building of gates that control the entry of seawater into the southwestern Netherlands.


Because the work of land reclamation from wetlands has been so persistent in recent centuries, many countries have restricted the practice. The destruction of wildlife habitat and of the breeding marshlands along coasts has threatened wildlife as well as the survival of many parts of the oceanic food chain. A growing number of countries are adopting environmental protection laws to prevent more land reclamation by wetland recovery.


Land reclamation is more than the recovery of wetlands. It can also be the restoration of land damaged by environmental degradation. Environmental degradation is caused in a number of ways such as mining, chemical dumping, urban development, logging, flooding, housing development, and other human activities. The goal of this form of land reclamation is to restore the area to a pristine natural state.

One of the culprits of environmental degradation, mining, removes great quantities of material by tunneling or stripping surface layers. Mine overburden may erode into streams and cause flooding. The pollution caused by water seeping into old mine tunnels or pits, which then leaches out chemicals that can pollute streams, rivers, and lakes, killing fish and damaging human health, is even more significant.

Coal mining is the leading cause of land disturbance in the United States and restoration of lands disturbed by mining is ongoing in old coal mining regions and in places where the tailings of arsenic, gold, or other mines have left streams and watersheds exposed to poisonous chemicals. These pollution sources are eliminated by filling in old mines or mine pits, the installation of chemical treatment systems, or the restoration of the land surface. The U.S. Federal Strip Mine Law now requires topsoil removed for mining be reapplied after the mining is finished. However, even this form of land reclamation may require fertilizer treatments in order to create a new layer of protective vegetation.

Another significant cause of environmental degradation, chemical dumping, has created areas that are virtually uninhabitable. In previous decades, chemical dumping was unregulated and the filled-in land was thought to be safe. However, in recent decades tragic consequences have come from the failure to properly reclaim land used for waste chemical disposal.

Reclamation of urban areas is a new activity, but one that has been growing in need. When municipalities need to remove old buildings, the issue of where to take the rubble arises. This is particularly the case in areas where the aftermaths of hurricanes or floods have created an enormous volume of building waste, which has to be placed somewhere and the area from which it came has to be cleaned of materials that could be hazardous to health.

The intentional destruction of abandoned building or factories has the advantage that the unwanted materials are removed and deposited in a location that will be supervised. By using evolving engineering techniques, the land is cleared of debris and rendered usable for natural or human activity much more quickly.

  • Agriculture; Mining; Soil Erosion; Urbanization; Wetlands.

  • M. C.R. Davies, Land Reclamation: An End to Dereliction? (Taylor & Francis, Inc., 1998).
  • Andrew S. Goudie, ed., Techniques for Desert Reclamation (John Wiley & Sons, 1991).
  • James A. Harris; John Palmer; Paul Birch, Land Restoration Reclamation: Principles Practice (Pearson Education, 1996).
  • Lawrence J. MacDonnell; George Vranesh, From Reclamation to Sustainability: Water, Agriculture, and the Environment in the American West (University Press of Colorado, 1999).
  • C. Paul Nathanail; R. Paul Bardos, Reclamation of Contaminated Land (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).
  • Malcom Prat, ed., Remedial Processes for Contaminated Land (The Institution of Chemical Engineers, 1993).
  • William E. Sopper, Municipal Sludge Use in Land Reclamation (Lewis Publishers/CRC, 1993).
  • Terrence J. Toy; Richard F. Hadley, Geomorphology and Reclamation of Disturbed Lands (Elsevier Science & Technology Books, 1987).
  • Andrew J. Waskey
    Dalton State College
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, inc.

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