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NGOs move to extend nature’s reach

SINGAPORE — It was a year in which the transboundary nature of environmental issues hit home and, in the year ahead, climate issues, human-wildlife conflicts as well as the Cross Island Line’s potential impact on a nature reserve could feature prominently in the news.

NGOs move to extend nature’s reach

Raffles Museum Toddycats Chloe Tan and David Tan at the Venus Loop, a path that leads into MacRitchie Reservoir. The young volunteers manage the Love Our MacRitchie Forest website and are pictured beside one of the streams -- home to creatures like the forest walking catfish and Johnson’s freshwater crab -- that nature groups are concerned that the future Cross Island MRT line could impact....Photo: Ernest Chua. 26 Dec 2013.

SINGAPORE — It was a year in which the transboundary nature of environmental issues hit home and, in the year ahead, climate issues, human-wildlife conflicts as well as the Cross Island Line’s potential impact on a nature reserve could feature prominently in the news.

Haze resulting from the burning of forests and plantations in Sumatra reached hazardous levels in Singapore and parts of Malaysia in June, sending the public scrambling for N95 masks and the Singapore Government putting mitigation plans into action.

The worst of the haze lasted several days but, for National University of Singapore climate change researcher Jason Cohen, it “really helped to open up people’s minds to this idea of international environmental issues” and served as a wake-up call that “no matter how well the Government does”, it cannot keep the environment of Singapore clean “on its own”.

A Haze Monitoring System for five countries in the region was developed by Singapore and adopted at the ASEAN Summit in Brunei in October. Its success hinges on accurate, up-to-date data from concession maps and satellite images overlaid to keep tabs on firms that clear land by burning.

Despite its tentative beginning, with uncertainties over the sharing of concession maps, Dr Cohen is optimistic about the system. “Any data that can be released is better than none.”

PROJECTING EXTREME WEATHER SCENARIOS

Three months after the haze, scientists in September pronounced it “extremely likely” that human influence is the dominant cause of global warming in the last 60 years and the Centre for Climate Research Singapore (CCRS) said the Republic could consequently expect more frequent and intense rainfall and more extreme temperatures in the coming decades.

Climate change, related scientifically to the haze in some ways, is the single most difficult global environment issue to deal with, said Dr Cohen.

He did not feel the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report (the Physical Science Basis and Summary for Policymakers) significantly increased public consciousness of climate change.

But for CCRS Director Chris Gordon, the first part of the assessment report released in September gave “considerably greater confidence in the projection that there will be an increase in heavy rainfall events over this region and, therefore, over Singapore in the future”. The report’s sections on impact and mitigation will be released in March and April next year.

Work is under way at the CCRS to “downscale” projections made in the report to produce scenarios for Singapore. Part of the Republic’s Second National Climate Change Study, its first phase of climate projections, is expected to be completed by the end of next year. Some questions it seeks to answer include: In an extreme scenario, how could we expect temperatures and rainfall to change by the end of this century? By how much do we expect sea levels to rise?

Such information will then feed into the second phase of the study, with projections used by infrastructure agencies to determine what coastal defences or flood drainage would be necessary here.

Dr Gordon stressed that climate projections are for the long term — over 50 to 100 years. “It is true that climate change will have some impact but, at this point in time, it’s still a relatively small impact.”

In the short term, natural variations largely account for the varying levels of rainfall and temperature, which make the weather impossible to predict beyond three months.

The Northeast Monsoon which started in November and could last until early March, for instance, has brought above-average rainfall this month and will likely bring 10 to 20 per cent more rain than average in the first two months next year. What causes year-to-year monsoon variation is “a whole range of different things”, such as temperatures of the ocean and those of the winds blowing from Siberia, said Dr Gordon.

UNITING FOR MACRITCHIE

Then, there is the delicate issue of the route of the future Cross Island Line (CRL). The underground train line is to be ready around 2030 but, when it was first announced in January and depicted to cut under MacRitchie Reservoir and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, nature groups were immediately concerned. The groups and the authorities soon engaged in dialogue, which the Nature Society’s CRL spokesman Tony O’Dempsey said have been smooth so far.

The Nature Society has proposed alternative routes for the line to avoid cutting through the nature reserve and has formed a working group with other non-governmental organisations and individuals to collate biodiversity studies done on the reserve in the past 20 years.

The working group will make its submission to the Land Transport Authority (LTA) by the end of this year, and is involved in determining the scope of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for which the LTA will call a tender in the first quarter of 2014.

Never before have NGOs been involved at this early stage of a project’s development and Mr O’Dempsey said the society is also requesting for findings of the EIA to be made public.

“The big deal here is that the CRL sets a precedent — if we keep it out of the nature reserve, it will limit other future projects that potentially encroach on the nature reserves,” he said.

The last time so many nature advocacy groups worked together was to oppose the reclamation of Chek Jawa wetland in Pulau Ubin over a decade ago, said co-founder of Cicada Tree Eco Place Vilma D’Rozario, who is part of the working group. “To me, the CRL is the worst thing that could happen to our forests … When things like that happen, all the advocacy groups come together,” she said, welcoming dialogue with the authorities.

Dr D’Rozario and three friends had protested by chaining themselves to a tree in Hong Lim Park for 24 hours in June, attracting young nature enthusiasts eager to pitch in.

The result: An initiative called Love Our MacRitchie Forest (lovemacritchie.wordpress.com), whose website is managed by NUS research assistant Chloe Tan and undergraduate David Tan.

The CRL issue has sparked a groundswell of efforts to share the nature reserve’s richness with the wider public: Cicada Tree Eco Place has held five public talks by botanist Joseph Lai, as well as 18 free walks for the public since June. The Raffles Museum Toddycats, a group of nature volunteers, has 20 trained Love MacRitchie guides and will be recruiting more next year, said Ms Tan.

A Toddycat, Ms Tan had studied the diversity of small mammals in different types of forest in Singapore during her honours year and found native species like the Singapore Rat and Common Treeshrew doing well only in and around mature forests of the Central Water Catchment.

“It is important to me that the boundaries of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve are not breached by development works because this would open the floodgates to further encroachment … in future,” she said.

MOZZIES AND WILDLIFE

More wildlife-human conflicts could arise, with developments in Singapore and Malaysia eating into remaining forest areas, said Mr O’Dempsey.

“We need to approach land development intelligently to accommodate this situation,” he said. This means better rubbish collection, better buffering between nature areas and residential developments, better building design so developments blend in rather than abut the nature areas and better understanding of the natural environment by residents.

Singaporeans also need to keep an eye out for dengue and other infectious diseases in the year ahead, said experts from Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Weekly dengue numbers reported are still relatively high despite December being a cooler time of the year.

Based on Singapore’s experience during the 2004 to 2005 epidemic which also involved Dengue Serotype 1, “there may be a chance that the trend this year may continue into next year”, said Professor Leo Yee Sin, Director of TTSH’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology.

Singapore logged a record of more than 21,000 dengue cases this year. Next year’s numbers will depend on multiple factors, including temperature and rainfall, the mosquito population, human population density and immunity, as well as the emergence of a new strain of the dengue virus, said TTSH’s epidemiology department head Angela Chow. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SIAU MING EN

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