Speech by Dr Koh Poh Koon, Senior Minister of State for Sustainability and the Environment, at PUB’s Our Coastal Conversation: City-East Coast
1 Good evening. SMS Tan Kiat How and I warmly welcome all of you to the 2nd session of “Our Coastal Conversation” series. Thank you for joining our dialogue today on coastal protection and flood resilience. Two weeks ago, we saw a good turnout of some 80 attendees from very diverse backgrounds – engineers and architects, fishing and sailing enthusiasts, nature lovers, and ordinary Singaporeans – who joined us for this same conversation. It was a very good discussion about protecting the City-East Coast area which we all love - aspects that they’d like to retain, the trade-offs involved and some of the sacrifices that would need to be made. I look forward to our discussions on this topic today.
Climate Crisis and Its Global Effects
2 Let me set the context on the various challenges that are before us. We have come a long way in our fight against COVID-19 and the fight is still ongoing. The uncertainty and disruptions brought about by COVID-19 are compounded by our external environment – disruptions to energy and food supply brought about by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and heightened geo-political tensions have caused turbulence to global economic and financial systems. Climate change is another major cause of concern as we witness its devasting impacts of widespread floods, water shortages and fall in crop yields in many countries.
Forward Singapore (Steward Pillar): Working Together for a Green, Liveable and Climate-Resilient Singapore
3 What can we do about such extreme events? How can we each play our part? We can, and must go beyond ‘Climate Concern’ to take ‘Climate Action’. And ‘Climate Action’ requires change and involves trade-offs. Some trade-offs will be difficult. Let me offer some questions for us to consider:
• Can we, as individuals, reduce our personal carbon footprint by consuming less, use water responsibly and take more public transportation?
• Would we be willing to pay more for local produce so that we can reduce carbon emissions and ensure a stronger food resilience?
• Can we change our behaviour to generate less waste and recycle more to help safeguard Singapore’s only landfill in Pulau Semakau?
4 We need to answer such questions together so we may arrive at where we want to be and become better because of it. We have been able to come this far by safeguarding not just the environment, but also ensuring economic growth and social inclusion; and galvanising our people to build today’s Singapore. We must continue to pursue this path of sustainable and climate-resilient development for our children and grandchildren.
Singapore’s Adaptation to Sea Level Rise & More Intense Rainfall
5 In the past, Singapore experienced wide-spread flooding during the monsoon seasons, especially in the city centre including Chinatown and Jalan Besar. These areas were built on relatively low-lying land. Over the last few decades, Singapore has been spared from the brunt of such floods through extensive drainage infrastructure such as the Stamford Diversion Canal, Stamford Detention Tank, and Bukit Timah First Diversion Canal. This is possible because of long term planning, as drainage infrastructure is costly and takes time to be built. Flood-prone areas have been significantly reduced from about 3,200 hectares in 1970s to 28 hectares today. The flash floods that we experience today usually subside quickly and are often caused by exceptionally intense rainfall.
6 The Centre for Climate Change Research Singapore has projected that mean sea levels could rise by up to one metre by 2100 due to climate change. If no actions are taken, we could experience flooding in more areas within Singapore, especially during events of extreme high tides and storm surges where sea levels could transiently be as high as four to five metres. This could potentially flood one-third of Singapore.
7 Climate change has resulted in more intense storms, and we have observed more of such occurrences in recent years. In April and August last year, more than an entire month’s rainfall fell on the western parts of Singapore within three to four hours. We must, therefore, prepare for the compounding effects of higher sea levels and heavier storms.
8 With over 300 kilometers of coastlines to protect, it is important to start our adaptation measures now. PUB, our Coastal Protection Agency, has already commissioned site-specific studies to formulate coastal protection plans, starting with the City-East Coast. This stretch of the coastline houses many cherished and important places like East Coast Park, the Changi Airport, our residences, and our city centre.
Trade-offs in Coastal Protection and Flood Resilience
9 As we seek solutions for the impacts that climate change poses, we should consider several trade-offs in developing our plan:
a) Trade-off in spending - Coastal protection and drainage measures are major infrastructural investments. How much are we prepared to spend, when there are other funding needs such as for healthcare and education? Do we need a foolproof solution or are we prepared to take some risks with a cost-effective solution? An example is how we have built the Deep Tunnel Sewerage System, or DTSS, a significant infrastructure that not only treats wastewater but recycles our used water for water security. Elsewhere, it is not uncommon to find rivers polluted by industrial and municipal waste streams, so the fact that we have a way to treat our wastewater to potable standards is both a major investment and a major feat in environmental protection. The DTSS costs us billions to build, but it gives us peace of mind about availability of water and avoids polluting our environment and the ocean around us.
b) Trade-off across generations - Such significant investments and long-term efforts will span several generations. How much do we start spending now? Do we start investing in coastal protection now when the impact of sea level rise is not yet felt, or do we take a greater risk and leave the problem to later?
c) Trade-off in land use – With a mere 730km2 of precious land area, and multiple competing land use needs, do we expand our drains and canals to accommodate every extreme weather event, or do we find common uses for our infrastructure? The Kallang River at Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park is an example of how we transformed a concrete canal into a naturalised river. It is designed to be a recreational space for park-goers during dry weather, with the public acceptance and readiness to vacate the spaces quickly when heavy rain falls. Can we find similar innovative uses for our coastal protection infrastructure?
Reimagining our coastlines
10 We have always turned adversity into opportunities. As we shore up resilience against the rising seas, this is an opportunity for us to rejuvenate our coastal areas and enhance the living environment for future generations. Take seawalls for example. They can be simple, functional structures with the main aim of keeping the sea at bay. But what if we were to build something on top of it, or to integrate the wall with nature elements, or perhaps create new recreational amenities that can be enjoyed by our people? The Marina Barrage, with its three-in-one functionality, is a perfect example of how our ingenuity can translate into robust infrastructure with recreational offerings. It is a beautiful place, not just for us to gain fresh water. It doubles up as a coastal infrastructure during periods of high tides. At the same time, we are familiar with how beautiful and engaging the barrage has been for Singaporeans.
11 The work of coastal protection is significant. Investment will be large, and decisions made today will have long-lasting implications. It is therefore important that this coastal protection journey involves the people, the community, businesses, and all stakeholders throughout the process of planning and implementation. It’s not just building a civil engineering structure but also, how to operate it and in the process of doing so, engaging the community around. Your active and sustained participation is important for the success of this project.
12 As a nation with limited resources, we had overcome challenges to reach where we are today. We must continue to build on our past achievements, strive to overcome our present limitations, and pioneer new solutions and leave behind a better Singapore for the generations that will come after us, just as previous generations have done for us. I invite your views and look forward to having rich conversations with all of you this evening. Thank you.