SINGAPORE - Development in Singapore will be done in a way that is more sensitive to wildlife and the natural environment, under sweeping changes made to the existing environmental impact assessment (EIA) framework.
Three key changes will be made to the framework, which was first introduced in 2008, The Straits Times has learnt.
One change involves the introduction of biodiversity impact assessment guidelines, which were developed by the National Parks Board (NParks) in consultation with experts here. The guidelines, similar to those already in place for noise or pollution control at worksites, will ensure that consultants assessing sites marked for development have a set of standards to follow.
Another change will see the transparency of environmental studies enhanced, with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spelling out on its website the circumstances under which such studies must be done. For example, an environmental study must be done if the development works are located close to an area of ecological significance, such as the nature reserves.
And with the exception of reports that contain sensitive information, such as those with security considerations, all environmental study reports will now be published online by developers, and the links will be made available on the website of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).
The third change to the framework will see the planning process - and not just the development work itself - become more sensitive to Singapore's natural environment.
This will be done through earlier engagement with nature groups in the planning and development process, and through the introduction of a course on basic ecology and the EIA process for planners from development agencies.
The course will be rolled out by the end of next year, and will be conducted by NParks.
While these changes to the framework are not officially codified in an EIA law, it still has regulatory teeth, the Ministry of National Development (MND) told The Straits Times earlier this week.
For instance, the recently amended Wildlife Act, which came into force on June 1 this year, empowers NParks to issue wildlife-related requirements as formal directions to developers and enables NParks to take direct enforcement action against developers that fail to comply with the required measures.
Striking a balance
While Singapore may be a densely built-up city, it still has green spaces that are home to rich and diverse wildlife, including globally critically endangered species like the Sunda pangolin, the Raffles' banded langur and the straw-headed bulbul.
But as a small nation with just 720 sq km of land, Singapore has always had to strike a balance between development and conservation, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee, who had championed the changes to the EIA framework, in an e-mail to ST.
"We must protect and enhance our natural capital. At the same time, we must house a nation, develop industry, create jobs, provide amenities and safeguard land for future generations - this is why it is critical that we consider the trade-offs we are making carefully with regard to land use, in the spirit of achieving a balance," he said earlier last week.
"We outlined our plans for a City in Nature earlier this year, and recognise that our planning processes must be enhanced in tandem to support this vision."
In 2017, Mr Lee said in his first interview as full minister that the Government wants to strengthen the EIA process, learning from lessons of earlier projects, and improving them. That year, his ministry embarked on a review of the EIA framework in collaboration with the nature community and government agencies that was completed earlier this year.
Nature groups respond
Members of the nature community approached by ST welcomed the changes to the EIA framework, saying they put Singapore on the right track in achieving its City in Nature vision.
Mr Sankar Ananthanarayanan, co-founder of nature group Herpetological Society of Singapore that studies reptiles and amphibians, and Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub from the TeamSeagrass volunteer group, said they were glad to see efforts to make EIA reports more transparent.
"Previously, getting information was very difficult and a lot of the engagement was done behind closed doors. Making the information more accessible could boost discussion on the findings. It's a big step forward," said Mr Sankar.
Access to earlier EIA reports, such as the one done for the Cross Island MRT Line, had initially been relatively limited, as people had to make an appointment to view a physical copy of the roughly 1,000-page report. The Land Transport Authority later put the document online after people complained about the inconvenience.
Dr Siti added: "The move towards greater transparency in approaches is especially important. The move towards earlier stakeholder engagement is also a welcome move, and nature groups like TeamSeagrass are looking forward to engaging with developers and developing agencies to ensure we safeguard our natural heritage."
For Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society (Singapore), the changes to the EIA framework were significant not just in terms of the new initiatives, but also in what they represented - increasing awareness of native biodiversity not just for individual projects, but at a national level as well.
"EIAs done for each project may be thorough, and mitigation measures could help safeguard biodiversity within the project site. But their effectiveness may be reduced if you consider the development around it," said Dr Lum.
Take for instance the new Tengah town, which will be built on secondary forest. HDB had catered for a forest corridor to run through the development to allow animals to cross between the western catchment forests and the central nature reserves. But last October, ST reported that part of the green highway in the plot next to Tengah was levelled for a HDB Build-To-Order project.
Said Dr Lum: "Such incidents are not the fault of the developer. So raising the standards of the industry, such as having ecology lessons for the planners, could help reduce such events from occurring."