Looking forward to 2017: Environment

Sustainability still key, with challenges ahead

A freshwater stream in the Lentor area just outside the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
A freshwater stream in the Lentor area just outside the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.PHOTO: ST FILE

Sustainability is the global buzzword these days and Singapore has done well in walking the talk over the past year.

It has opted to buy paper from sustainable sources, made strides to curb food waste and laid out its action plan to mitigate climate change by boosting energy efficiency across all sectors. These initiatives, among many others, do not just help the environment - they make monetary sense too.

Using energy-efficient appliances could help businesses and households reduce costs over time.

This focus on sustainability looks set to continue next year, as Singapore strives to limit environmental damage in its quest for development.

But it will not be painless, especially when it comes to conserving nature - which is something that cannot be valued in dollars and cents.

Professor Peter Ng, head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, summed up the challenges in straddling the fine line between development and nature conservation, when he quoted United States diplomat Henry Kissinger, who once said: "The great tragedies of history occur not when right confronts wrong but when two rights confront each other."

One case study that exemplifies this is the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) move earlier this year to clear a 30ha secondary forest plot in Lentor - through which two rare freshwater streams run - to make way for private housing.

On the one hand, the forest plot is rich in biodiversity and home to several rare animals, including the globally critically endangered Sunda pangolin. On the other hand, providing homes for Singapore's growing population is a national need.

The good news is that the Government has demonstrated its willingness to listen, at the very least, to concerns aired by the environmental community.

To save wild animals in the Lentor plot, for example, the URA embarked on a novel wildlife management plan that involves gradually clearing the site so animals can naturally move to nearby green areas.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has also listened to nature groups and taken steps to reduce the impact of development of the upcoming Cross Island Line, which could potentially tunnel under the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

In June, it announced that it will adopt another 10 mitigating measures - on top of an earlier nine - to reduce the impact of soil testing works on plants and animals in Singapore's largest nature reserve.

These were adopted on the back of talks between the LTA and nature groups, and works in the reserve are due to start soon.

On the surface, it may appear encouraging that the LTA has adopted additional measures to reduce the impact of works on the reserve. But the Cross Island Line saga has highlighted several important questions: Is sustainable development just about limiting impact?

Could this result in the term "sustainable development" being used as a catch-all phrase to justify development in all areas? Even in a protected nature reserve - a representative site of the Republic's key natural ecosystems?

The year 2017 is likely to be one in which more of such questions will arise, and will likely be marked with more debate, dialogue and discussion among stakeholders, including the Government and conservation groups.

It is no easy feat to accommodate differing needs in just 719 sq km of land, which is all Singapore has.

As Prof Ng says: "I expect even more challenges to come to the front. This is only to be expected.

"We are starting new things in conservation, research and juggling often conflicting needs. Easy? No.

"But it has to be done anyway."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'Sustainability still key, with challenges ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe