By Invitation

Protect our environmental reserves like fiscal reserves

Man-made, short-term economic gain is sometimes behind so-called 'natural' disasters. Singapore can play its part by recognising the value of its environmental reserves.

ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO
Geh Min

Last year saw its share of natural disasters: hurricanes, earthquakes volcanic eruptions, floods, wildfires and so on. If we feel a sense of disaster fatigue on reading about them, imagine how the victims must feel - especially when informed to expect worse in the coming years!

But how natural are natural disasters? Is this term a convenient tag for sloppy thinking or an easy way to blame Mother Nature? Or even a deliberate ploy by politicians or corporations to absolve themselves from blame?

On closer examination, many "natural" disasters have a degree of human culpability; some are, in fact, wholly man-made.

Take the haze from which we have been spared last year and were suitably grateful. (Malaysia has even gone to the extent of publicly thanking the Indonesians.) For several decades, it was believed that the seasonal air pollution over Singapore and our neighbours was a result of "natural" forest fires despite environmentalists and scientists explaining that tropical forests do not naturally combust, unlike those in drier zones.

This myth was a convenient smokescreen for both companies and politicians who lacked the economic incentive or political will to prevent them. It was only after the huge conflagration in 1997, with estimated losses to Singapore of over $100 million in health, tourism and the airline industry alone, that the general public woke up to the fact that the culprits were not Mother Nature or even traditional slash-and-burn farmers but oil palm and paper companies clearing land for replanting. In fact, nature was not the culprit; but the cure - a good shower of rain - was more effective than any amount of on-the-ground firefighting or water-bombing from the air in stopping the conflagration.

The reason for distinguishing natural from man-made disasters is prevention or at least mitigation.

The number of people killed, displaced or injured, and the economic losses sustained are what distinguishes a natural phenomenon from a disaster. So while we cannot prevent earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, we can prevent them from becoming disasters by prediction and precautionary measures.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

Unfortunately, although science and technology have given us a far better understanding of natural phenomenon than our ancestors, who could see them only as acts of God or nature, we are also hampered by the fact that our global population has increased to the point that not only is it impossible to live in disaster-free areas, but we are also contributing to their severity, climate change being the prime example.

Our ability to prevent or reduce the severity of disasters depends on several basic precepts.

SEEING THE BIG PICTURE

Several decades ago, I was travelling in one of the East African countries through endless, dusty, semi-arid savannah, when we saw what looked like a huge rocky outcrop.

Getting closer, it turned out to be a hotel for several hundred guests which would not have been out of place in any tourist resort but was totally incongruous in a region of single-storey mud huts or small, tented camps - even these were few and far between. The eerie thing was that, although completed, it was totally deserted and I remember vividly the sight of wild grasses growing through cracks in the otherwise pristine but empty Olympic-sized pool.

This had been an ambitious joint project by the World Bank and the government to boost tourism and the country's economy. Unfortunately, the planners had been so fixated with the economic bottom line that they had neglected to factor in the project's environmental sustainability.

A hotel of that size would have needed far more water than was available in that area and to pipe in the necessary water from a distant source required a doubling of the many millions that had already been poured into the project.

So the whole place had been abandoned.

This illustrates dramatically what is often played out: a failure to realise that the big picture is the environment. All human activity, including economic activity - which so engrosses planners, politicians and captains of industry - must occur in the natural environment which supplies us with air, water, land, food and all the other resources we need to stay alive and economically active. These have always been plentiful and self-renewing in the past when human activity was a small blip in the natural landscape, but now that humans and their impact have grown exponentially to become a dominant force, we can no longer treat the environment as a self-sustaining "externality".

The natural environment we live in is our life-support system and is now severely overstretched and degraded by thoughtless, irresponsible and ignorant "business as usual" assumptions.

MAKING THE RIGHT CONNECTIONS

The link between some human actions and resulting environmental problems should be obvious.

Haze arising from forest fires caused by deliberate or uncontrolled land clearing by burning is one - but even that took a long time for us to join the dots. Even now, it is not possible to get a clear picture of all parties responsible because of the number and complexity of the players and motives.

But many more disasters have a far more remote and complicated connection with human activity, compounded by historical or geographical distance.

Many countries are suffering from water shortages today as a result of overambitious and inappropriate industries and agriculture. While the mistakes are now recognised, it is not a simple matter to rectify practices which are both a mainstay of the economy and a major source of environmental degradation.

The tragic drying up of the Aral Sea, recently one of the world's four largest lakes and now described as one of the planet's greatest environmental disasters, was caused by massive irrigation projects by the Soviets in the 1960s piping water into the desert for growing cotton. Within living memory, it is now shrunken to less than a tenth of its original size and has a salinity higher than the Dead Sea.

Fishing boats ,which used to serve a flourishing industry and supply essential protein to the millions in land-locked countries around it, now rust on dry beds of salt, sand and toxic chemicals which in a sand storm spread wind-borne toxic dust to a huge area already deprived of fresh water. Unfortunately, efforts to reverse this involve gargantuan injections of money and transnational cooperation with no guarantee of success.

We have made the link between overfishing and rapidly depleting fisheries or deforestation resulting in flooding and landslides. That is well and good - but what about deforestation causing depletion of our fisheries as a result of excessive runoff and erosion which smothers coral and mangroves, the nurseries of much of our seafood; or deforestation resulting in degradation and depletion of drinking water; and of course climate change which will accelerate and exacerbate all these other problems?

The list is so endless and interconnected that, not surprisingly, most people, including or perhaps especially, policymakers, don't want to know, because to recognise the problem means having to take action. It is so much easier to live from day to day and think of floods, pollution, fire or other environmental events as natural disasters.

TAKING THE LONG VIEW

Thinking more moves ahead gives competitive advantage to both chess players and countries.

Singapore has been very fortunate in having Mr Lee Kuan Yew as our founding prime minister. Described as visionary, he was astute enough to take the long view and act on it. Singaporeans can thank him and the first generation of leaders for our clean air, adequate drinking water and much more. But even he recognised that this millennium brings far more global environmental challenges than the past.

United States President Donald Trump has repeatedly trumpeted his "America first" slogan but is rapidly eroding rather than strengthening US supremacy, as seen by his stance on climate change.

Russia, more than any other major power, stands to benefit economically and geopolitically from global warming as it will open up important shipping routes and ports in the Arctic as well as access to huge reserves of minerals, oil and gas, not to mention enormous tracts of agricultural land. It would be ironic if the US should speed up this process through their carbon emissions.

Whether Mr Trump is aware of this is questionable but the Chinese certainly are and have been preparing the ground for greater engagement in the Arctic, including acquiring observer status in the Arctic Council. So has Singapore, despite our being even more geographically remote.

GREEN GLOBAL POSITIONING

We have seen how misguided thinking, based on insufficient knowledge and for short-term economic gains, has had long-term socio-economic costs, many of them almost impossible to reverse.

Singapore should continue the legacy of thinking ahead on environmental issues and retain our competitive edge by more careful and informed environmental decisions.

For example, the proposed Cross Island Line of the MRT through our central catchment and largest nature reserve may have serious repercussion on our water supply and the sustainability of our forest and the valuable ecosystem services they provide.

Do we really want to risk all this for an estimated few minutes less of travelling time and some relatively minor cost-saving?

The decision should not be taken without very serious consideration by not just the Land Transport Authority, but by the whole of government with extensive consultation with Singaporeans.

In fact, to prevent future disaster, we should be guarding our environmental reserves as carefully as we do our fiscal and social reserves.


 •The writer, an environmentalist and former Nominated MP, is the immediate past president of the Nature Society (Singapore).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2018, with the headline 'Protect our environmental reserves like fiscal reserves'. Subscribe