Friday, April 18, 2008

Dam(n) ideas...

Sometimes, I read of downright silly, hare-brained schemes to put our nature areas to "better" use. Some people, still woefully ignorant of the ecological, recreational, and even spiritual value of our wild places, are capable of coming up with some ridiculous ideas. Race tracks on Pulau Ubin? Yes, the idea has been proposed before. Building Disneyland in Sungei Buloh? As ludicrous as it is, someone was actually dumb enough to suggest that.

But I was extremely appalled to read this in the Forum section of today's Straits Times:

After Marina Barrage, Tekong-Ubin reservoir (mirror)

WITH the Marina Barrage near completion, this new reservoir will help to provide Singapore with enough water for the next few years. But for true water independence, Singapore must continue to look for new water sources for the next few decades, especially before 2061 when the water agreement between Singapore and Malaysia expires.

Singapore's north-east region is flanked by two large islands - Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong. Singapore should consider building three barrages to enclose one of the potentially largest reservoirs in Singapore - connecting Singapore to Pulau Ubin, Pulau Ubin to Pulau Tekong and Pulau Tekong to Singapore. If we can do this, the volume of this new body of water will be at least twice that of MacRitchie, Lower Peirce, Seletar and the new Marina reservoirs combined.

With these barrages in place, the growth and importance of both Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong will take a leap forward. Many important functions can be moved from the main island to these smaller ones, relieving much precious land resource.

Best of all, national servicemen will be able to go home faster from their training camp if a barrage is built between Pulau Tekong and the main island. The value of the coastal area around this reservoir will increase as recreational activities prolific in this largest fresh-water body in Singapore.

With dramatic changes in global weather recently, there is a new urgency to secure and store fresh-water supplies. Even though the cost of processed Newater has come down dramatically, the opportunity to create a new reservoir is still important as a fresh-water reservoir is still the cheapest source of supply. Flood control - in view of future rising water levels caused by global warming - will also be addressed with these new barrages: They will be able to protect a significant part of the coast.

As Singapore grows, we need to continue our relentless search for new water sources - and do it quickly. In the new Marina Reservoir, salinity is lower as a larger portion consists of fresh water from the river. Thus, even if we can enclose this new Tekong-Ubin reservoir, we are basically closing off a body of pure sea water and it may take decades before it becomes the more useable fresh water.

Syu Ying Kwok

It does not take an expert to see how such a suggestion is simply ludicrous and unfeasible. November at Pulau Ubin Stories has already drawn up a nice and thorough list of problems with the idea, while Ria at Wildfilms talks about the riches of our northern shores, which would all be lost if such a crazy idea was ever carried out.

I decided to draft a reply:

Ubin-Tekong Reservoir? Not worth the costs

I refer to Syu Ying Kwok's letter "After Marina Barrage, Tekong-Ubin reservoir" (ST, April 18 2008). While the need for a constant supply of fresh water will no doubt be essential to Singapore's survival, I am afraid that the idea of connecting Pulau Ubin and Tekong to mainland Singapore to form a new reservoir is simply not feasible, and overlooks many important reasons which render it an untenable idea.

Construction of the Marina Barrage involved building a dam across the mouth of the Singapore River. Ideally, over time, the saltwater in the estuary will be flushed out, to be replaced by fresh water from further upstream. Mr Syu's letter already pointed out a major difficulty with replicating this scenario for a hypothetical Ubin-Tekong reservoir: damming up an area of sea with the aim of converting all that seawater to fresh water is simply not a sound idea, especially when there are few if any rivers to supply fresh water to the enclosed area.

Building pumps to pump out all the seawater will involve great costs, while the cheaper alternative, letting all the seawater evaporate naturally, will take years, if not decades, and will most likely result in a giant saline lake, which defeats the whole purpose of building a reservoir to store fresh water for human consumption. Dumping in large volumes of fresh water to dilute and flush out all the seawater would be self-defeating, especially since the amount of fresh water required would probably exceed the potential capacity of the reservoir.

When reclamation at Pulau Tekong has already become the subject of territorial disputes with Malaysia, and when the issue of Pedra Branca has yet to be resolved, proposing to build such a reservoir so close to international boundaries will surely not sit easily with our neighbours. The Malaysian authorities will be unhappy for another reason: Mr Syu failed to take into account the fact that the proposed reservoir would destroy an internationally important shipping lane. Ships travelling between Pasir Gudang, Sembawang Shipyard, and the rest of the world stand to lose an essential route if the area was dammed up. Are the economic and political risks worth it?

Because the area is currently subject to heavy maritime traffic, dredging is constantly being carried out, and there is also quite a high risk of pollution. What happens if the water in the reservoir gets contaminated? The area also sits right at the mouth of the Johor River, which in recent years has experienced heavy flooding during the December monsoons. There is the chance that heavy rains will wash a mixture of floodwaters and seawater right into the reservoir. And with sea-level rise due to climate change, or occasional storm surges, there will always be the risk of seawater breaching the dams and infiltrating the reservoir. What are the costs involved in preparing against such occurrences, or in rectifying the situation if such contamination occurs?

Lastly, building such a reservoir will severely impact a number of ecologically significant nature areas that many have come to love. Places like Chek Jawa, Changi Beach, and the Pasir Ris mangroves will all be lost forever if such a scheme is ever implemented. These sites, rich in biodiversity, are irreplaceable in terms of their value as part of our natural heritage, and have also become important places for leisure and recreation. Not to mention that damming up the sea will lead to massive die-offs of marine life as the salinity of the water changes, which will present a major pollution problem.

Ultimately, in lieu of all these other points, which the original letter failed to take into consideration, are the great costs involved in constructing and maintaining such a reservoir justified?

There are simply too many costs in return for attaining self-sufficiency in our water supply. We already possess technologies like desalination and reverse-osmosis which can help us achieve this objective, without the potential economic, political, and ecological nightmare that would ensue if an Ubin-Tekong reservoir was built. While it is important that we foster an environment that is receptive to new ideas that will help us maintain our competitive edge, it would be advisable that people carry out more research into the viability of their ideas before voicing them out in public spaces like the Straits Times Forum.

Kwan Wei Ming Ivan

Syu Ying Kwok seems to suggest that the reservoir will boost the development of Pulau Ubin and Tekong, especially since the barrages can allow certain functions to be moved to these islands (I suspect he was thinking of industrial development). But then, is the development of these two islands really in the national interest?

By saying that the 'importance of both Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong will take a leap forward', he appears to be insinuating that these two islands are currently not important to us, when nothing could be further from the truth. Pulau Ubin's value as rustic kampung getaway and tourist attraction should not be underestimated. Pulau Tekong still remains valuable as a major military training ground. Presently, apart from the possibility of reopening the granite quarries on Ubin, it is believed that there are no major changes planned for these two islands. And based on the number of letters clamouring for Pulau Ubin to be kept as it is, any plans to construct a reservoir of such scale and impact will invite great public outcry.

Another reason why this is not a good idea is one of security: Will MINDEF be comfortable with making Pulau Tekong more accessible? Connecting Pulau Tekong to Ubin and mainland Singapore will require more security checkpoints and more manpower.

He writes, "The value of the coastal area around this reservoir will increase as recreational activities prolific [sic] in this largest fresh-water body in Singapore."

Has Syu Ying Kwok ever gone down to Pasir Ris Park or Changi Village on a weekend? Has he ever seen the anglers who flock there for a spot of weekend fishing, or the families who throng the beaches? Has he ever seen how many people take part in canoeing and sailing in these waters?

Besides, if this reservoir is opened up for watersports, I shudder to think about the greater potential for security breaches, with all the people who will somehow end up trespassing onto Pulau Tekong, deliberately or otherwise.

But what really angers me is the blatant disregard for the biodiversity that inhabits this area. Changi, Pasir Ris, Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong are home to a rich array of marine ecosystems, from mangroves and coastal forests that are the final refuge of species now rare or even extinct elsewhere in Singapore, to seagrass meadows teeming with marine life, to extensive mudflats that feed large flocks of migratory birds. That the original letter did not so much as mention the ecological catastrophe that would come about speaks of great ignorance on the part of the writer of these ecological treasures.

This ludicrous idea fails in so many aspects. There is a distressing lack of awareness of the other costs that will come about should the reservoir be constructed. The idea fails to take into account the great costs that will be involved, not just in constructing and maintaining the reservoir, but in the economic, political, and ecological damage that will occur in the wake of this project. The writer fails to consider the existing value and uses of the area, and how their loss cannot be made up for by the perceived advantages of the reservoir. In essence, to use the old adage, he has lost the forest for the trees.

Such thinking can be very dangerous in policy-making. Failure to examine places in context means that one runs the risk of overlooking the value of other functions. I can argue that the land where Shenton Way is right now would be a good place for an Integrated Resort, but it would hardly be a good justification to raze all the office buildings. Similarly, even suggesting that the sea around Changi, Ubin and Tekong should be dammed to create another reservoir shows the person's inability to recognise the importance of the area for shipping, its status as a potentially politically sensitive region, its great significance in our island’s natural heritage, and its current recreational and cultural value to many Singaporeans.

While technology has allowed us to accomplish much, one always has to take into account whether the implications are worth it. Is it worth investing so much into a project that will put so much at risk? True, it is nothing as monumental as the Three Gorges Dam, but all the same, there are so many other externalities that have to be explored, and so many other stakeholders involved, that it would be extremely foolish to ignore them.

Syu Ying Kwok forgets another important issue at the heart of our drive to attain self-sufficiency in our water supply: the end users who will be consuming all the water. We have to watch our consumption patterns, and to see whether there are ways we can use water more efficiently so as to reduce wastage. It would be quite pointless to build another mega-reservoir if it means that Singaporeans get to waste water with wild abandon. Instead of looking at such disruptive and destructive means of increasing our water supply, what about looking into ways to maximise output from technologies such as desalination and reverse-osmosis, or better still, being more aggressive with encouraging people to conserve water?

Given how poorly researched this whole idea was, it does make one wonder how the editors at the Straits Times judged this letter to be fit for publication. But then again, it isn't the first time I've seen such dreck expressed in the Forum pages. I really wish that people would do more reading and research before hastily spouting off such insane and ridiculous ideas, especially when ordinary laymen can see the absurdity of this proposal. Stupidity can be very dangerous, especially when enough people hear of a stupid idea and get influenced by it. In closing, a particular quote comes to mind:

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."