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‘More frequent intense storms a warning of worse to come’

SINGAPORE — The focus in recent days may have been on heavy downpours and flash floods, but Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday cast the issue as a longer-term challenge facing the country, saying that the rising frequency of intense storms is a warning sign of worse to come, as sea levels rise due to global warming.

‘More frequent intense storms a warning of worse to come’

Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. TODAY File Photo

SINGAPORE — The focus in recent days may have been on heavy downpours and flash floods, but Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday cast the issue as a longer-term challenge facing the country, saying that the rising frequency of intense storms is a warning sign of worse to come, as sea levels rise due to global warming.

Climate systems that are more brittle could magnify issues of food, water and energy security, he said at a National University of Singapore (NUS) forum last night, citing it as one of his potential nightmares.

Responding to a question from the audience on whether flood-control expenses would shift the focus away from clean water for home and industry use, Dr Balakrishnan said the Government’s investment to improve Singapore’s drainage system is to prepare Singapore for future floods. He noted that a quarter of Singapore’s land is reclaimed and 1.25m above sea level.

In the future, “we’ll be challenged at a far greater level than we are today”, Dr Balakrishnan said. “So that’s how I justify to my colleagues in Cabinet why I need the budget and the approval to proceed to do these drainage projects.”

Dr Balakrishnan’s comments came as several parts of Singapore were hit by flash floods yesterday afternoon. On Monday, the authorities had warned that “slightly above-average rainfall and rainy days” during the north-east monsoon, which is expected to last from the middle of next month till March, could result in flash floods in parts of the island.

At the forum, which was attended by 200 staff, students and alumni, Dr Balakrishnan outlined three major threats to Singapore’s environment. Besides global warming, a major pandemic, such as SARS and transboundary environmental issues like the haze were identified as challenges facing the country.

Asked by participants if a law could be enacted to mandate environmental-impact assessments be done before development, Dr Balakrishnan said this has to be considered carefully.

While an impact assessment will be done before the Government decides whether the future Cross Island MRT line will run below the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, he said: “Personally, I’m opposed to it running through our nature reserve.”

On whether economic indicators would trump environmental issues, the minister said the Government has “never viewed it as the economy versus the environment” and believes clear skies and clean water and streets are good for business.

Asked by a student about the petrochemical industry, which contributes significantly to Singapore’s carbon emissions, he said the authorities take a long-term view and do a “holistic assessment” of what is in the interest of Singaporeans and the country’s role in the global value chain.

The petrochemical industry provides jobs for locals and, as a major refining centre, Singapore can be part of the solution in shaping a less pollutive industry, Dr Balakrishnan said.

Two students asked if Singapore could take part in a “payment for ecosystems services model” where it paid its neighbours not to degrade forests. Dr Balakrishnan said that while the model is philosophically sound, practical challenges exist — such as the potential of being asked to pay ever-elevating amounts.

He also cautioned against the notion that Singapore is wealthy enough to hand out funds “indefinitely”.

“Yes we’ve been successful. Yes, we’ve the responsibility to be a good citizen of the world … But never get this inflated idea that we are rich and that we can change the world unilaterally.

“I’m afraid we are not in that position,” he said.

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