Take a hundred-year view of floods

Richard Hartung Today Online 2 Sep 11;

After two major floods and several smaller ones over the past years, residents here are understandably nervous when the rain starts pelting down.

The good news is that help is on the way. Following the major floods in June, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) said it would "appoint a panel of local and overseas experts to conduct an in-depth review of all flood protection measures" to be implemented over the next decade. The MEWR expects that the experts, who were revealed in late June and held their first review in early July, will come up with an initial plan in six months.

If Singapore were to follow best practices from a country like the Netherlands, though, simply looking at the next decade might seem far too short a span.

It might seem like Singapore and the Netherland have little in common. After all, the Netherlands is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world and it has been wracked by water for centuries. Singapore, on the other hand, is above the ocean level and has over the years developed water management systems that have largely eliminated floods.

The past several years have shown how much things have changed. While the flood that inundated Orchard Road last year may have seemed like a once-in-50-years flood at the time, new MEWR Minister Vivian Balakrishnan recently said that "personally I think our weather has changed".

Along with changes in rainfall patterns, the oceans are undergoing a change too. The MEWR estimates that sea levels will rise by 18 to 69 cm by around 2100 and some think the sea could rise even more. Singapore's 2008 National Climate Change Strategy notes that the Public Utilities Board has been requiring new reclamation land projects and low-lying areas under redevelopment to be raised. Is this, however, enough?

The Netherlands offers an example of what may be needed amid such climate uncertainty.

In 2007, the Dutch cabinet recognised climate change was upon them and appointed a new Sustainable Coastal Development Committee, called the Delta Committee, with the mandate "to formulate a vision on the long-term protection of the Dutch coast and its hinterland".

What was most remarkable about the committee was how far into the future it actually looked. Rather than looking just at the next decade or two, the committee said in its 2008 report that its task was to "investigate strategies for the future, long term development of the coast (2100 to 2200), paying attention to both safety and environmental (spatial) quality". Its vision thus extends for centuries rather than just decades.

That long-term vision has its roots in Dutch history. As Dutch Deltares managing director Harry Baayen noted at the Singapore International Water Week in July, the Netherlands has nearly 500 years of experience in managing water in a country where "two-thirds of the country is under the sea level or threatened by floods".

In figuring out how to handle the effects of climate change, they are looking at "how to prepare for the next century" while creating "room to decide in the future about what will happen" as climate change progresses.

Climate change has brought unexpected change in many countries. Australia experienced a drought in 2009 that Murray-Darling river basin commission head David Dreverman told The Guardian "is more typical of a one in a 1,000-year drought"; and the airport in Auckland, New Zealand was closed after it experienced snow for the first time in nearly 50 years and did not have snowploughs to clear it.

While Singapore does not need snowploughs, planning for floods that are likely to come in the shorter term and rising sea levels as the polar ice caps or glaciers melt in the longer term seems prudent. Planning with just a decade-long horizon could leave us looking for new solutions 10 years hence.

There is indeed at least one Dutch expert on the MEWR-appointed panel and he or others may well bring a longer-term view, even as short-term measures are definitely needed. As long as the panel is not constrained to look only a decade ahead or just to consider floods from rainfall, there is an opportunity to bolster Singapore's reputation for long-term planning by looking perhaps a century ahead and developing flexible solutions for protection.

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.