Sustainable development should prioritise climate resilience, biodiversity protection and people’s well-being, not just having more housing or wider roads
Over the past decades, Singapore has witnessed a number of negative environmental impacts of rapid deforestation and urbanisation, such as floods, landslides, animal roadkill, human-wildlife conflicts and disease outbreaks – many of which are unprecedented.
One root cause of such environmental problems is capitalism, which is recognised to have generated massive wealth for some, while also devastated the planet and failed to improve human well-being at scale.
Lately, I learnt that an alternative economic model is gaining traction in today’s world, in which we are grappling with climate change, biodiversity loss, and threats to our well-being.
It is called the Doughnut economic model, conceived by Oxford University economist Kate Raworth for promoting respect for our social foundation and ecological ceiling.
It has been adopted by major cities, such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Melbourne, and has also been proposed by Red Dot United (RDU) and Singapore youths’ 2022 SG Green Policy Paper, in the hope to address the issues of widening inequality and climate emergency.
After all, a growing GDP doesn’t necessarily equate to a successful society when the rich become richer and the poor become poorer, or when environmental degradation affects our well-being, quality of life and survival.
Those of us who are less well-off are also more vulnerable to the negative consequences of human-induced climate change, due to lack of or inadequate access to air cooling and/or healthcare services.
To date, six of the nine planetary boundaries, including climate change and biodiversity loss, have already been crossed, according to researchers from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
Disruption of ecological connectivity between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest (Photo by Jimmy Tan)
Part of wildlife corridor in Bukit Batok being cleared for roadworks is regrettable
In the light of the aforementioned environmental impacts, I am deeply concerned about the clearance of a patch of secondary forest in Bukit Batok during the ongoing road-widening works, which was done without any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
Not only it results in a loss of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, cooling of urban heat island effect and prevention of soil erosion and landslides, it also disrupts safe movements of wildlife between Bukit Batok nature corridor and Clementi nature corridor.
Notably, the loss of about 1 ha of the forest in this area is equivalent to 483 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (or the equivalent of the annual emissions of over 150 cars), if we consider the fact that Singapore has lost 201 ha of tree cover, equivalent to 97,200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, last year.
Annual tree cover loss through deforestation in Singapore from 2001 to 2021 (Source: Global Forest Watch)
While we note from a Land Transport Authority (LTA) spokesman that “detailed environmental studies were not needed when the project was first proposed in 2016 as the works mainly impacted the fringes of secondary forest dominated by rubber trees”, and that “the project will cater to the expected increase in traffic in the vicinity”, many things have changed since 2016.
Expected increase in traffic in the vicinity is questionable
Firstly, more people have been studying and working from home ever since the Covid-19 pandemic took place in 2020, and this trend is likely to continue as many schools and companies have learnt to be flexible in dealing with any such future pandemics.
Secondly, LTA has been promoting their vision for a car-lite Singapore since 2016, such as encouraging more people to walk, cycle, share cars or take public transport.
So, it is questionable as to whether traffic will increase in the vicinity as much as it was expected in 2016, since car drivers can choose to use greener transport modes, or travel via alternative routes, or adjust their travelling schedules to avoid any peak hour congestion where possible.
As a resident of Bukit Batok, my own observations show that the roads around Bukit Batok nature park have light traffic most of the time, and the peak hour traffic in the morning and evening seldom builds up beyond each cycle of traffic light changes at the road junction (see below videos for reference).
Another resident of Bukit Batok also noted that “the roadworks may be necessary, but it seems the road is being made unnecessarily wide, considering that the traffic jam occurs at only certain hours of the day”.
Moreover, in my feedback to LTA via One Service app in February 2022, I wrote that the Right Turn storage lane from Bukit Batok East Ave 6 to Bukit Batok East Ave 2 could be extended to accommodate more vehicles, so there was no real or urgent need to widen the road to the extent of encroaching on the existing pavements and trees.
While I understand from LTA that the widening of the junctions within Bukit Batok leading to Hillview and Dairy Farm is meant to enhance connectivity and support the growth in new and future residential and commercial developments in these neighbouring areas, I wonder how many people buy property just to sell them in 5-10 years upon meeting the Minimum Occupation Period (MOP) to make quick profits, instead of staying long-term?
“Many of my peers who are also applying for a BTO unit or have already booked one seem to have this more dispassionate view: They believe it is a no-brainer that one should sell a BTO unit as soon as possible, while it is still relatively new, so as to reap sizable profits.”– Ng Jui Sen “Adulting 101: My first BTO flat — a home to sink roots and build a family or a money spinner?” (TODAY, 31 July 2021)
Such a situation will invariably (and artificially) boost housing demands (whether for long-term homes or short-term investment or upgrading), and property developers will constantly need new land space or forests to clear to build more Build-To-Order (BTO) flats and condos. Is that sustainable, as compared to redeveloping previously developed or under-utilised lands (and perhaps also lengthening the MOP for new BTO flats in former forested lands to discourage people from speculating in property at the expense of the forests)?
Also, although Singapore’s population growth rate has risen from 1.3% in 2016 to 3.4% in 2022, most of the growth comes from PRs and non-citizens, including wealthy foreign investors who tend to make bulk purchases of private properties, and many investors may buy the properties to rent or sell them for quick profits instead of staying there long-term.
Thus, if we keep building on new condos in the vicinity to cater to such frivolous housing demands instead of redeveloping brownfield sites for genuine home buyers, we not only may make it more difficult for Singaporeans to find affordable public housing given the space constraints, but also unwittingly sacrifice our precious few forest habitats to widen roads mainly to cater to the rich and privileged who drive cars.
Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in ecologically sensitive areas should be mandatory
In recent years, the Ministry of National Development (MND) has been strengthening EIA frameworks, such as in 2020 when Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) spelt out that an environmental study must be done if the development works are located close to an area of ecological significance, such as the nature reserves, nature areas, marine and coastal areas, other areas of significant biodiversity or with potential trans-boundary impact.
While LTA has done well to ensure that an EIA was done for the North-South corridor project in Sembawang woods, and for the Cross Island Line projects in Central Catchment nature reserve and the forested areas in Eng Neo Ave, Turf Club, Clementi forest, Maju forest and Windsor nature park to mitigate environmental impacts, it is regrettable that they neglect to do so for the road widening project between Bukit Batok nature corridor and Clementi nature corridor, as both nature areas have been studied and established to be highly biodiverse and ecologically sensitive.
We have seen how over the years previous development projects done in forested areas without any EIA have serious negative impacts on wildlife and human residents, such as in Punggol, Pasir Ris, Tampines and Hougang.
For example, the loss of forest habitats in Punggol and Pasir Ris have resulted in human-wildlife conflicts, resulting in injuries to unfortunate passers-by caused by the displaced wild boars, and the injured residents had to bear medical costs and possibly experienced post-traumatic stress disorder for a long time.
The loss of secondary forests, such as in Tampines bike park and in Hougang, have also contributed to flash floods during intense rain, causing vehicles to stall and resulting in inconvenience, distress and costs of damage for the drivers.
All these negative impacts on humans and the environment might have been prevented if an EIA had been conducted and there were mitigation measures (such as wildlife shepherding and retaining of sizeable forested areas to minimise the effects of habitat fragmentation and loss) in place.
As it were, the lack of an EIA for the road widening project in Bukit Batok to mitigate environmental impacts of the forest fragmentation is disappointing, as it suggests a disregard for climate change mitigation, wildlife movements, ecological connectivity, and human safety and well-being.
As colugos live on tall trees and move between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest, they may suffer chronic stress, fertility problems and change their migration routes in response to the construction noise and loss of tall trees along the road in the vicinity. Furthermore, if the forest patch next to Bukit Batok hillside nature park (which is part of Bukit Batok nature corridor) is cleared for housing development, it will further disrupt ecological connectivity and affect safe movements of wildlife. (Sources: NParks, ST Graphics, HDB, Our Singapore Facebook page)
Already, an uncommon native Sunda colugo, an arboreal forest-dependent animal that lives and glides among trees, was found to be stranded in a car park next to Block 271, Bukit Batok East Ave 4, late last month. It is likely to have been affected by the loss of mature trees between Bukit Batok nature park and Toh Tuck forest due to the roadworks, which suggests that the mitigation measures LTA had discussed with NParks have not worked as well as they should.
As noted by National University of Singapore (NUS) biology lecturer N. Sivasothi, “the affected forest patches are located near the intersection of the Bukit Batok and the Clementi nature corridors, which might impact the wildlife moving between western catchment forests to the central nature reserves.”
“These nature corridors are important pathways for animals to travel between areas of high biodiversity, which help rejuvenate green fragments. If the link is broken, green fragments become cut off from ecosystem functions available in a mature forest.”– Mr Sivasothi, “Part of wildlife corridor in Bukit Batok cleared for roadworks” (The Straits Times, 26 October 2022)
If naturalists and nature groups had not spoken up about this issue, I wonder if LTA and National Parks Board (NParks) would have reinforced their efforts to mitigate such impacts?
In addition, given the fact that an EIA is being carried out along Bukit Batok nature corridor (which Bukit Batok Hillside Park (BBHP) Hill 1 and 2 are a part of) since end 2021 and is expected to take about 15 months upon commencement, shouldn’t the respective agency or contractor allow for the proper environmental studies to be done, to ensure wildlife, flora and fauna could be properly managed, before deciding whether (and how much) to clear or conserve any part of the forest (like in the case of the erroneous clearance of part of Kranji woodlands last year)?
Wouldn’t the ongoing removal of vegetation at BBHP Hill 2 (as well as the planned deforestation for the November 2022 launch of BTO site in BBHP Hill 1) further disrupt ecological connectivity, which might also further impact the wildlife (such as the uncommon native Sunga colugos, critically endangered pangolins, forest-dependent palm civets, endangered long-tailed macaques, etc) moving between western water catchment forests (via Tengah nature way and Bukit Batok nature corridor) and the central nature reserves?
Early this month, at the time of writing, representatives from Singapore are attending the COP27 United Nations climate talks in Egypt – can we really present our revised climate targets on net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 with a clear conscience when we continue to clear carbon-absorbing forests right in our own backyard for road widening to accommodate more vehicles (many of which are carbon-emitting)?
Similarly, how can naturalists, nature groups and the general public have trust in our governance of wild green spaces if the authorities fail to respect NParks’s Ecological Profiling Exercise in the aforementioned nature corridors?
I believe that Singapore can do better than merely coming up with promising solutions that may end up being little more than greenwashing than actually dealing with the environmental problems.
In view of the climate emergency, biodiversity loss and public health crisis facing us, may I recommend the following solutions to prevent incidents, such as the clearance of part of a wildlife corridor, from happening again?
- Create or appoint an independent, non-governmental agency or organisation with regulatory teeth to ensure that there are proper checks and balances regarding environmental studies, since NParks may not have sufficient clout to enforce their own regulations when it comes to working with other government agencies, such as LTA and Housing & Development Board (HDB).
- Consult nature groups at the earliest possible stage of any development project involving ecologically sensitive nature areas, so as to ensure accountability and transparency of the relevant policies and mitigation measures.
- Adopt the degrowth or Doughnut economic model to ensure that we respect our social foundation and ecological ceiling, so that every Singaporean will lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community within the means of our environment.
- Increase MOP from 5 years to 10 or more years for new BTO flats (especially those that will be built in greenfield sites), so as to discourage people from buying new property purely for short-term investments and profits at the expense of the forests and forest-dependent wildlife.
- Avoid any further deforestation along Bukit Batok nature corridor (including BBHP Hill 1 and 2 area) and in Tengah forest, so as to maintain ecological connectivity, climate resilience and a liveable environment for humans and wildlife between Western water catchment and Central catchment nature reserve, and focus on redeveloping brownfield sites elsewhere.
P.S. To support the conservation of (the rest of) Bukit Batok Hillside Park area so as to ensure a sustainable future, click here.
To support the preservation of at least 30-50% of Tengah forest so as to protect biodiversity and tackle climate emergency, click here.