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Explainer: Why climate change should matter to Singaporeans and what the Govt is doing about it

SINGAPORE — Describing climate change as “one of the gravest challenges facing humankind”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Aug 18) that Singapore must understand what it means for the country and take steps to mitigate and adapt to it.

Explainer: Why climate change should matter to Singaporeans and what the Govt is doing about it

Singapore is a low-lying island that is especially vulnerable to the threat of rising sea levels.

SINGAPORE — Describing climate change as “one of the gravest challenges facing humankind”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Sunday (Aug 18) that Singapore must understand what it means for the country and take steps to mitigate and adapt to it.

He also took pains to outline just how vulnerable Singapore is to the effects of climate change, particularly rising sea levels, and what the Government is doing to prepare the Republic.

TODAY takes a closer look at the issue.

SO JUST HOW DIRE IS THE SITUATION?

Dire enough that Mr Lee said the Government expects to spend S$100 billion or more over the next 100 years to invest in engineering solutions to protect Singapore's coastlines from rising sea levels.

With global warming and melting ice sheets, the United Nations has projected that sea levels will rise by 1m by the end of this century. But scientists’ estimates have been going up and sea levels may rise higher and faster than that, he noted.

Global warming has also led to more extreme weather and this has had an impact on Singapore, which has experienced hotter weather and heavier rainstorms, he said.

“This will very likely worsen over the next few decades, within the lifetimes of many of us,” he warned.

Mr Lee quoted a recent study by Swiss-based research group Crowther Lab, which had found that Singapore would be one of several cities experiencing unprecedented climate shifts by 2050.

He said Singapore should think of climate change the same way it thinks about national defence and the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) — with utmost seriousness.

Both represent existential issues and life and death matters, he noted, with one difference: “With the SAF, we hope never to go to war, and if you have a strong SAF you may deter threats and avoid having to go to war. But with climate change, we know for sure sea levels will rise and the only uncertainty is whether they rise a few decades earlier, or a few decades later.”

WHY IS SINGAPORE SO VULNERABLE TO RISING SEA LEVELS?

Aside from being an island nation, Singapore is also a low-lying island, making it “especially vulnerable” to rising sea levels, Mr Lee said.

Indeed, flooding was a common problem in Singapore back in the 1960s and 1970s, but these had been resolved by improvements in the drainage system and requirements for buildings to be built on higher platforms that are at least 3m above the mean sea level.

However, Mr Lee emphasised that 3m “is not actually that high” because at high tide, water can be as high as 2m above sea level, leaving only a 1m buffer to cope with other factors such as heavy rain.

However, with sea levels set to rise by another 1m, there will no longer be a buffer during high tide, warned Mr Lee.

“If heavy rain coincides with a high tide, the water will have nowhere to go. We will literally be in deep water!”

WHICH ARE THE MOST VULNERABLE PARTS OF SINGAPORE?

The Government has studied Singapore's coastline in detail, Mr Lee said, and divided it into different segments. The more critical ones are a stretch of land between East Coast and the City, and Jurong Island.

When sea levels rise, Mr Lee said, not only will property values in these areas be affected, but safety and liveability will too.

The impact will then spread across the whole island, he added, because roads and trains run through these low-lying areas, and they also contain hospitals, schools and workplaces.

"We cannot lose a big chunk of our city and expect the rest of Singapore to carry on as usual," Mr Lee said.

WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT DONE SO FAR TO PREPARE FOR RISING SEA LEVELS?

For one, it has set up the Centre for Climate Research Singapore in 2013 to study the impact of climate change on Singapore and the region. The centre’s team is cooperating with its counterparts in neighbouring countries, said Mr Lee, and they are finding that Singapore, being near the equator, is more vulnerable to climate change than the global model suggests.

Singapore is also mitigating climate change by joining international efforts to reduce its carbon emissions. For instance, Singapore is part of the Paris Climate Agreement and is committed to slowing down and capping carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

To reach this goal, the Government introduced a carbon tax of S$5 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions, which came into force this year. The government will review the rate by 2023, and plans to increase it to between S$10 and S$15 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Singapore has also been building its infrastructure at higher levels. That is why, for example, MRT stations are built with elevated entrances, Mr Lee noted. 

New developments are also required to be at least 4m above mean sea level, instead of 3m like before, while critical infrastructure such as Changi Airport Terminal 5 and Tuas Port will be built at least 5m above mean sea level.

WHAT ELSE CAN BE DONE?

The Government will start building defences against rising sea levels in the most critical segments that it has identified — Jurong Island and the area stretching from East Coast to the city area.

In the city area, which covers Marina Reservoir and Marina Barrage, Mr Lee said that the PUB has plans to build a second pump house, in addition to the current one at Marina Barrage. The current pump house has seven giant pumps which pump water out of Marina Reservoir into the sea during periods of heavy rain at high tide to protect the city from flooding.

The second pump house will be located at the opposite end of Marina Barrage.                            

Along the eastern coastline, the Government is considering several options to shore up its defence against rising sea levels. One of these, drawn from studying what the Netherlands has done, is to build dykes and polders along the coastline.

Mr Lee explained that polders are land that the Dutch have reclaimed from the sea by first building a dyke. Water is then pumped out from behind the dyke to create dry land which can even be lower than sea level.

“Polders are a serious option for us,” said Mr Lee, adding that with them, low-lying areas can be protected and the Government can reclaim new land from the sea which can be used for housing and other purposes.

He also revealed that Singapore is currently building a small one on Pulau Tekong to gain some experience operating one. The new land will be used for SAF training.

Another option to counter rising sea levels is to reclaim a series of islands from Marina East to Changi, and then connect them up with barrages and create a reservoir similar to Marina Reservoir, said Mr Lee.

“We will examine all the options carefully and when the time comes, decide what to do,” he said.

On a more optimistic note, Mr Lee said that the problem has good engineering solutions, but they will all cost money — likely to the tune of S$100 billion, perhaps more.

However, he said, this is a problem to be solved over the next 50 to 100 years, and so the cost will be spread over that time period.

Still, he added that Singapore must start now and sustain the effort just as the Dutch have done over centuries.

HOW WILL SINGAPORE RAISE THIS MONEY?

As with the SAF, Singapore has to work steadily at it, maintain a stable budget year after year, keep its eye on the target and do it over many years and several generations, Mr Lee said.

"That way we can afford it, and when we need it, we will have it ready," he said.

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