Hougang/Lorong Ah Soo secondary rainforest: Then and now

Winds of change: The former secondary rainforest at Hougang Avenue 1 was probably around 8-10 ha in size (equivalent to 10 football fields).

Almost 10 years ago, I took an aerial picture of the secondary rainforest next to Tai Keng Gardens from an apartment block along Hougang Avenue 1.

Back then, I had no idea that it would be cleared for housing development one day.

I discovered the forest in the backyard of my office building at Upper Paya Lebar area around 2013.

That was when I decided to go for lunch on my own and take a walk around Tai Keng Gardens.

The lush greenery and fresh air along the forest fringe provided a respite for my soul.

However, by early 2018, bulldozers came to raze the forest to the ground.

That same year, I left the company and became a self-employed writer, editor, photographer, videographer and food delivery rider.

Thanks to my flexible working hours, I was able to explore other forests, such as Bukit Batok hillside park area and Tengah forest, and advocate their conservation.

After all, the relentless pursuit of development-at-all-costs has resulted in the climate crisis, biodiversity loss and health crisis facing us today.

I had the opportunity to visit this formerly forested area again while passing by Hougang / Lorong Ah Soo recently, and I saw how much has changed.

Gone were the densely growing trees and shrubs, with only a few token ones remaining in the margins.

One might say that change is inevitable, as the only constant is change.

But I believe we can have nuances in our narratives and ask ourselves who benefit and who do not benefit from the changes in land use.

How about those who have been displaced or disadvantaged by the deforestation and cannot speak up for themselves?

It is not known how the loss of the forest at Hougang Avenue 1 may affect resident and migratory birds that may have used it as a stopover and/or core habitat. Hopefully, an ecological profiling exercise will be conducted for the remaining forests, including Paya Lebar airbase forest buffer before any development begins.

How would the existing residents in Hougang Avenue 1 and Tai Keng Gardens feel about the loss of ecosystem services in their neighbourhood?

Can we consider state land as public commons since the forest is interconnected with the air we breathe and the fauna we depend on for pollination, seed dispersal, food security, etc?

A drainage area was dug beside the significantly large fig trees next to Tai Keng Gardens, possibly to prevent flash floods during heavy rains. I am not sure if it was built only after a flood occurred nearby at Hougang Avenue 3 in November 2020.

My feedback to Housing & Development (HDB) on soil erosion and tree fall at Bukit Batok south hill, aka Bukit Batok hillside park hill 2 (via One Service)

Dear Sir/Madam,

Earlier today, I noticed that parts of Bukit Batok South Hill area (next to Bukit Batok hillside park) have been denuded of trees and shrubs, and the heavy monsoon rain has washed the exposed topsoil away, causing soil erosion.

Heavy monsoon rain causing soil erosion and tree fall at Bukit Batok south hill next to Bukit Batok hillside park area on 13 August 2022 morning

On a steep slope along Bukit Batok West Ave 9 opposite Block 467B, the clearing of vegetation appeared to have resulted in a tree losing its stability and falling onto the pavement.

Tree fall in a steep slope where shrubs and other plants have been removed

This is worrying not only because such tree fall may cause obstruction and potential injury to any passers-by, but also because the hills in Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak have a long history of slope failures and landslides (in view of their geology, topology, etc, which make them vulnerable to the negative impacts of urban encroachment).

These hazards suggest that we have crossed the ecological threshold through rapid deforestation and urbanisation – please see here for reference on a recent slope failure at Bukit Batok Hillside Park.

Moreover, along Bukit Batok West Ave 5 opposite Bukit Batok Hillside Park area, the cleared land along the perimeter of the marshy grassland may have caused the pavement to be flooded more easily during wet weather.

The removal of vegetation along the perimeter of the marshy grassland reduces soil permeability and increases surface runoff during rain.

Even if the clearance of vegetation has been done to prevent overgrowth onto the pavement, it appears to have been done aggressively to the point where there is less tree and shrub cover to absorb the rainwater.

As this low-lying area was formerly a depression or valley between Bukit Batok South Hill and Bukit Batok Hillside Park before a road (aka Bukit Batok West Ave 5) was built to divide the two hills in 2018, it remains a freshwater marsh on both sides (which support a fairly rich biodiversity) and is also prone to flash floods.

May I urge the relevant authorities and agencies to keep any trimming or pruning of vegetation to a bare minimum in this area please?

This is to ensure that it will not affect the habitats of the wildlife (which include uncommon forest-dependent species such as red-legged crakes and copper-cheeked frogs, as recorded in the Environmental Impact Studies report) and it will also minimise incidences of flash floods, considering the fact that climate change is causing more frequent and more severe storms as reported in the news?

“As for rainfall, the IPCC said that in general, bouts of rain could become more intense and frequent with each additional degree of warming.”

From “IPCC report indicates Singapore could take bigger hits from climate change” (The Straits Times, 9 August 2021)
The excess water pooling on the pavement during and after rain causes the surface to be wet and slippery, posing a hazard for people

Incidentally, I reported a case via One Service recently, in which the slippery pavement along Bukit Batok West Avenue 5 has caused me to almost slip and fall down while travelling along the pavement. The puddles and flash floods in this area during wet weather may pose a hazard to other pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and food delivery riders who use the pavements.

Tree fall along Bukit Batok West Avenue 5, a likely result of edge effects and habitat fragmentation, where trees along forest edges experience increased wind exposure and other microclimatic changes

Last but not least, I learnt that NParks is currently covering several green areas (including Bukit Batok south hill and Bukit Batok hillside park area) and future parks in an environmental impact assessment (EIA) along Bukit Batok nature corridor, in line with its efforts to reduce fragmentation of habitats in Singapore.

“Mr Lee said that based on findings from the exercise, future environmental studies are expected to consider the ecological connectivity of the development site to other adjacent habitats.

Enhancement works in the nature corridor’s two parks will mainly consist of habitat restoration and other works that will help improve ecological connectivity, he added.”

From “Environmental impact assessment covering 122ha in Bukit Batok to start at end of year” (The Straits Times, 15 November 2021)

It would thus be inappropriate (and even unethical) to remove any trees along this critical part of the ecological corridor, which links Tengah nature way to Bukit Batok nature park and Bukit Timah nature reserve, especially while the EIA and ecological profiling exercise are still ongoing, as it would invariably affect the liveability of the environment and the biodiversity that depends on it.

Otherwise, the findings and results of the EIA may be skewed at the expense of the wildlife residents who live and move around here, as well as the human residents in Bukit Batok who have come to enjoy and appreciate the wild nature, the cool ambience, and the mental health and immune boosting benefits provided freely by the forests along Bukit Batok nature corridor, both now and for many generations to come.

Thank you for your attention.

Yours sincerely,
Jimmy Tan San Tek

P.S. My feedback was submitted through One Service bot in Telegram via the blog weblink due to space constraints, as I wasn’t able to submit it via One Service app due to technical issues.

Approximate locations of tree falls along Bukit Batok West Ave 5 and Ave 9 on 13 August 2022. (Source of base maps: One Service app, National Parks Board and Straits Times Graphics)

As within, so without: Soil and our mental well-being

During my lunch shift yesterday, I came across a banner saying “Save soil” in Little India.

This message speaks to me because I have been mulling over the subject on the environment.

Soil – a much-taken-for-granted entity that we have grown up with – is becoming rare, as Singapore becomes increasingly urbanised and concretised.

After gaining independence, Singapore was planned to be transformed “from mudflats to metropolis”.

Perhaps the need to survive in the capitalistic system might have caused its proponents to push for “economic development at all costs”…

even the costs of negative impacts on the climate, biodiversity, ecological connectivity, human well-being, and so on.

Just last Saturday, I attended a seminar on the mental well-being of our youths, organised by Red Dot United, between my lunch and dinner shifts.

A study shows that about 1 in 3 young people in Singapore has mental health symptoms.

One of the panel speakers, Elijah Tay, aptly summed up the different kinds of stress experienced by young people: studies stress, work stress, minority stress, and social stress (as a result of social injustice and climate crisis).

Incidentally, studies show hotter weather caused by human-induced climate change has adverse effects on mental health, such as causing aggression and anxiety, resulting in higher incidences of crimes and suicides.

I wonder how much the cases of crimes and suicides correlates with the mental health crisis experienced by our youths.

Research has found that for every 1C increase in monthly average temperature, mental health-related deaths increase by 2.2%. Heat waves also impact cognitive ability, increasing aggressive behaviour and violent crime rates. The best thing we can do to help ourselves and future generations is to act on climate change, say experts.” (World Economic Forum, 14 July 2022)

Given the complex nature of mental health issues, could we also address the issue of soil loss, which is related to a loss of forests and organic soil-based farms?

Science tells us that fat in soil bacteria can alleviate stress, hence could our youths lack exposure to wild green spaces nowadays?

In biblical times, a renowned teacher once taught about the four types of soil in the human heart: wayside, rocky, thorny and good ground.

Has the soil in our hearts become so hardened (or desensitised) or distracted to receive the seeds of grace that we become alienated from ourselves and Nature?

Could the inner condition of our humanity be manifesting as the outer condition of the environmental destruction around us?

Perhaps to resolve the stress in our society, we need to go within and allow the seeds of grace to grow and bear fruit in the good soil of our hearts.

On this National Day, may we remember to rely on Nature’s grace instead of our self-efforts or self-righteousness.

I hope we will restore our ancient soils and forests too for the sake of our well-being.

The densely growing trees in Tengah forest can cool the urban heat island effect more effectively and extensively than small parks and gardens.