A major initiative undertaken by the national water agency PUB, to keep floods at bay, is an indication of the efforts that Singapore will need to make in an era of climate change. Infrastructure which worked during happier ecological times will suffice no longer. The need now is to move actively to plan for a discordant climatic future. The Orchard Road floods of 2010 provided a foretaste of possible times to come. Far more than the physical inconvenience which they caused, they resulted in a subtle but real psychological dislocation. Singaporeans were jolted out of their belief that their well-planned country was immune somehow to errant acts of nature, commonplace though those were in the region and beyond.
Singapore took up the challenge and has spent $1.2 billion on drainage improvement works since 2011. Now, it will pump another $500 million into a massive upgrade of its drainage network. The money will be used to fund existing projects at 75 spots islandwide, as well as those at 16 new locations and future projects. The objective is to make monsoon drains and canals bigger, and fortify older structures, for example. The vagaries of the weather have been kept in mind. There have been floods on 14 days this year, compared with 10 last year and six in 2015. While the incidence of floods has dropped from 36 in 2013, these fluctuations reinforce the need to prepare for the climatic worst.
Figures provided by the National Climate Change Secretariat are alarmingly instructive on several dimensions of change. Among them, there was a general uptrend in annual average rainfall, from 2,192mm in 1980 to 2,727mm in 2014. In 2001, Typhoon Vamei swept by north of Singapore, causing major flooding in the region. The possibility of similar tropical cyclones near the equator occurring more frequently in the future cannot be discounted. If anything, storms that are increasingly intense portend changes that must be prepared for now. Thus, under the PUB's scheme, drains in flood-prone areas or those nearing the end of their lifespans will be given priority in upgrading. Also, the Bukit Timah First Diversion Canal, which will be expanded by the end of next year, will be able to take in 30 per cent more rainwater. Considered together, such incremental improvements in the drainage system should amount to a cumulative defence against Singapore's ecological predicament: how to preserve its urban quality of life in the face of the battering forces of nature.
This defence calls for a national effort. There is a limit to how big and wide drains can be because of Singapore's size, which sharpens competing demands for land use. Here, developers must play their part by employing measures to slow down run-off into public drains and to protect developments from floods. Any infrastructure is only so good as the people who build but also use it.