The Straits Times says

Saving what's precious at water's edge

Plans by the State to rehabilitate Pulau Ubin's crumbling shoreline would cheer many who see the island's 720 native plant species and more than 500 animal species as precious natural assets that should be safeguarded. There was a time when some wanted Ubin to be simply left alone, as when the Chek Jawa Wetlands controversy arose 15 years ago. Such thinking has since evolved.

The seemingly paradoxical demands highlight the challenge of conservation as new threats arise alongside existing ones.

Climate change, for example, is expected to heighten coastal erosion in many places as sea levels rise and project more wave energy to the shoreline. Up to 20 per cent of coastal wetlands are expected to suffer, according to studies elsewhere. Wilder storms and shifting currents (due to shipping traffic and land reclamation) also play a part. Much of what has been learnt from efforts to protect Ubin could be applied to other coastal areas here that are being besieged.

Caught between advancing development and the deep blue sea are the world's 70 species of mangroves that might disappear altogether, say scientists. That would be a considerable loss as tidal wetland ecosystems formed by mangrove forests help prevent erosion, sustain mudskippers, crabs, snails and birds, and help to improve water quality.

Singapore had 6,400ha of mangroves in 1953 but only a fraction now remains, mostly in Ubin, Sungei Buloh, Labrador Park and Pasir Ris. Quite apart from the value of saving endangered species like the Eye of the Crocodile tree species, protection of mangroves can reinforce the effectiveness of man-made sea walls that will be needed to hold back the seas. A combination of natural and engineering methods is envisaged for Ubin which is facing severe erosion in its northern areas, leading to the closure of popular Noordin Beach.

Small though it is - about the size of Changi Airport - Ubin can play a useful role in promoting awareness of the threats being faced by coastal areas. Every new generation needs to appreciate that conservation is a never-ending task, not just along the coast but also farther inland - like the reforestation undertaken earlier at the western side of Ubin to restore the land after a bush fire there. In joining hands for such efforts, people might value more the biodiversity that remains.

Such appreciation can act as a buffer against any invasive land-use plans that might emerge in the future. One cannot rule out radical approaches should demands arise for more land for development. The 2001 Concept Plan, for example, had mentioned the possibility of linking Ubin, Tekong and Changi. Thankfully, plans have since emerged to keep Ubin the way it is for now - protecting what still thrives there and preserving traces of what used to be.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline Saving what's precious at water's edge. Subscribe