Best of our wild blogs: 29 Jan 11

An Oriental Honey-buzzard entangled in a tree
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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New year, old conundrum: "Sharks are people, too"

Don Mendoza Today Online 29 Jan 11;
If memory serves, it has been written that we all have a constitutional right to eat well.

I quickly gathered that the writer in Blackwell Publishing's Food And Philosophy (a collection of essays by modern day philosophers and culinary professionals) was referring to civilisation in general. So, theoretically, it would seem that we First World folk in Singapore should know better. Well, we'd like to think that, wouldn't we?

At the risk of sounding like a hypersensitive car alarm that keeps tripping every time someone farts too close to the vehicle, I'm just saying that it surprises me that shark's fin is still being featured in this Lunar New Year's "auspicious bounty" of dining opportunities. Baby shark's fin in some cases. Seriously?

And so I am going to do what I did last year, and the years before that. I am going to do my utmost to not be a giant vinegar-soaked blanket when I once again remind my fellow food lovers - who may still be planning their festive dinner menus - that sharks are people, too.

Okay, so that's not really true. But, hey, no subspecies actually resembles a lawyer either.

All jokes aside, we cannot afford to overlook the fact that the well-being and ultimate survival of this pre-Homo sapiens species (which means sharks were here first) lies in our hands. The outcome will in fact help define our humanity.

And is that, honestly, a risk worth a fancy bowl of soup?

Fact: The annihilation of any subspecies of shark - an apex predator - could quickly spiral into a host of irreversible ecological devastation.

Studies have shown that sharks are vital to the preservation of healthy ocean ecosystems. The very same oceans we mammalian land animals depend on.

What's not to get, I'm often forced to ask. It would, in fact, be easier for an atheist to fathom why some women and a whole lot of men regard Nigella Lawson a goddess of sorts - goodness knows she looks the part. Or why more diners are ready to fork out the equivalent of the price of gold to dine on a certain Italian fungi from Piedmont in a fancy restaurant.

Frankly, I can even appreciate that not all pastry chefs - including a young award-winning American toque named Alex Stupak - like sweets.

So in what would seem like a desperate attempt to prove to myself that culinary morality is not rocket science, and that I'm no Einstein, I asked my five-year-old girl what she thought about the downside of shark's fin consumption.

Statistics eluded her, but the unnecessary cruelty was not hard to comprehend. "It's like eating only the chicken's wings," she replied broodingly. And the wingless birds, my seven-year-old continued in her attempt to clarify, are left to die a slow death.

To eat well is to eat responsibly on both an ethical and a nutritional level. And good food, I've always said, starts with good taste. Frankly, eating sans a conscience is distasteful.

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Where's the diversity?

NParks has begun planting more native trees and plants lately, but experts say public attitudes need to change to accept more organic landscapes
Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

IN THE Garden City, trees used to take the limelight while wildlife took a backseat. But the latter is shaping up to be an increasingly important part of the deal.

More native trees, as well as a greater variety of them, are now being planted along roads and in parks to attract birds, butterflies and other wildlife that will sustain the ecosystem. The National Parks Board now draws from a palette of more than 400 species of trees for roadside planting, double what was used in the early days of the Garden City.

Singapore is also spearheading conservation efforts in urban settings, having helped develop a global index on cities' biodiversity which has already been tested by cities like Curitiba in Brazil and Nagoya in Japan.

The reasons for this are simple but often overlooked: Plants cannot exist without wildlife, and greater biodiversity can make it easier to maintain urban greenery.

As it is, declining bee populations in Europe and the United States have worried food producers because bees are crucial for pollinating plants like almonds, citrus fruits, pears and cucumbers.

Closer to home, the proliferation of pest birds like Javan mynas and house crows in some areas is due in part to the streetside planting scheme adopted in the early years. As the city needed to green rapidly in the 1970s, it focused on a limited choice of fast-growing trees like the rain tree, angsana and African mahogany. This dense, monotonous green canopy provided Singapore's city folk with shade, cut out noise and reduced dust. But the neat and orderly 'lollipop' style of street plantings made it hard for many native birds to survive.

Dr Ho Hua Chew, the vice-chairman of the Nature Society's conservation committee, blames it on the 'destruction of the untidy patches of woodlands and hedges all over urban Singapore and the countryside'.

Within years, these organic landscapes were replaced with a neat and orderly mixture of concrete, evenly spaced trees and lawns, he says. These trimmed lawns and fields provided the Indonesian Javan mynas with ideal ground to hunt for their natural food like grasshoppers and worms. But their increase is believed to have ended up muscling out the melodious - and native - Oriental magpie robin here.

In the 1980s, the Garden City's subsequent choices of trees were based more on aesthetic and sensual, rather than ecological, reasons: The pink poui and boungainvilleas made their debuts to add colour to the landscape, while fruit trees and fragrant plants were introduced in housing estates, parks and schools for variety.

The National Parks Board's director of streetscape, Mr Simon Longman, says: 'We didn't specifically choose trees that would be a refuge for birds or a food source for birds along the streetscape. But there are some which incidentally provided food for birds, like the buah salam tree.'

This medium-sized tree bears small red berries.

Over in condominiums, the plantings are driven more by fashion than environmental concerns. Arborist Jacqueline Allan from landscaping company Nature Landscapes says: 'Everybody tends to go for a certain set of trees. And then when somebody tries something new, everybody tries that too.'

More than 20 years ago, she notes, coconut trees were all the rage. About 10 years later, developers started taking a liking to palms. Today, she says, the Central American bucida genus of trees seem to the 'in thing'. It's no wonder then that the landscape of modern Singapore, just like its people, has become very cosmopolitan, or even exotic.

'Most of the species here are brought in from somewhere. Some, like the Jacaranda, have already taken up citizenship,' she quips, referring to the South American import with lilac-coloured flowers planted in many older condominiums.

But how the infusion of foreign talent has affected local biodiversity remains unclear. For sure, the rapid development of the city has had an impact on native flora. A 2009 guide to native vascular plants - the dominant type of plants - published by the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research revealed that 29.8 per cent are globally or nationally extinct.

As if that is not bad enough, the local ecology also has to contend with humans who demand greenery at their doorsteps but recoil at the untidiness that can come along with it.

According to Mr Tay Ah Bah, the senior horticulture manager of town management firm EM Services, public housing residents often ask for trees to be trimmed when they block the view from their flats. They also complain regularly about insects flying into their homes when trees get too close. In response, town councils select trees that do not support as much insect life, he says.

But insects sustain birdlife. Dr Shawn Lum, president of the Nature Society, says the little critters are an important part of the diet for birds like orioles, flycatchers and magpie robins.

In recent times, NParks has introduced different and more plants native to this region to support wildlife, in the process also making Singapore's streetscape more resilient to disease outbreaks and insect attacks. But it maintains that it will continue to choose trees primarily for their stability and ability to thrive in an urban environment.

Dr Lena Chan, deputy director of NParks' National Biodiversity Centre, hopes the Republic's growing crop of high-rise gardens and network of green trails linking its parks could potentially serve as stepping stones for wildlife to feed, rest and move around this densely built-up island.

But for that to happen, there needs to be greater variety in Singapore's urban greenery. Dr Lum says: 'The more complexity you have, the more animals you can support.'

But the experts concede it will be an uphill task getting urbanites to accept this more organic or even spontaneous environment.

'It kind of goes against our ingrained aesthetic... people in their 30s or younger are accustomed to seeing fairly uniformed or structured, orderly landscapes,' says Dr Lum.

Beyond that, Singaporeans will also need to get used to the idea of sharing the island with a variety of creatures, big and small. The recent sightings of deer and wild boar around the nature reserves, for example, were cause for excitement but also some unease about having wildlife at close range. On this front, Dr Chan thinks a good old-fashioned dose of give-and-take is in order.

'We need to remind people that if you want to live in a house right next to a nature reserve, remember to take into consideration that you are also infringing on an area where the monkeys were before. (Don't) complain about them. They were there first.'


If you want a butterfly, don't kill the caterpillar
Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

Three things you can do to support local biodiversity:

go easy

# Don't freak out when you see a caterpillar: It is a butterfly in waiting.

If a caterpillar nibbles the leaves of your festive plants, don't reach for the bug spray. Simply hide the hole-ridden plant behind other flowering plants.

Experts say the caterpillars usually don't cross over. They hang onto certain types of plants and chomp on only particular types of leaves.

go wild

# Loosen up: Not all gardens need to be manicured. Letting wild grasses and plants grow would support more varied types of wildlife beyond those already adapted to city life.

go native

# Go native and make your neighbourhood nursery go native: The plant nursery business is demand-driven, so if more customers request native plants, the nurseries will bring in more of such plants.

A comprehensive list of native vascular plants - the dominant type of plants - can be found at

Alternatively, you can browse the National Parks Board website

Information from Dr Lena Chan, deputy director of the National Parks Board's National Biodiversity Centre, and Associate Professor Hugh Tan from the National University of Singapore's Department of Biological Sciences

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Vertical farming boosts production of vegetables in Singapore

Jason Tan Channel NewsAsia 28 Jan 11;

SINGAPORE : Singapore has successfully developed a vertical farming system prototype, which could help the land-scarce Republic maximise its production of leafy vegetables.

Vertical farming is a technique of producing agricultural products at multiple levels, conserving land space in the process.

A six-metre tall structure rotates at one millimetre per second, distributing sunlight to all the plants.

Water powers the system and is constantly being recycled, keeping energy consumption low.

The system is also affordable too. One of the frames costs about S$10,000.

The prototype was developed by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority and private firm DJ Engineering.

During his visit to the farm, Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan said he is impressed with the system.

Mr Mah said: "It can produce about five times the output of a normal farm, using the same area - per square metre of space, it's actually able to produce five times (more). So it's very suitable for Singapore's condition.

"So far, very encouraging. And hopefully, this will then be expanded and help us to achieve our target - we're trying to achieve 10 per cent local production of leafy vegetables."

Mr Mah and other visitors also had a chance to sample some of the vegetables.

Owner of DJ Engineering, Jack Ng, has set up the company Sky Greens to drive the commercialisation of vertical farming.

Sky Greens expects the first crop of produce from the system to be available in major supermarkets by this year.

- CNA/al

Veggies from a vertical farm
Esther Ng Today Online 29 Jan 11;

SINGAPORE - Vertical farming has become a reality here, after DJ Engineering and the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA) successfully developed a prototype that could help land-scarce Singapore maximise its production of leafy vegetables.

Vegetables can now be grown in a six-metre-tall tower: Exposure to sunlight is optimised when rainwater collected in an overhead reservoir flows down through pipes, powering a wheel which rotates the stacks of vegetables a millimetre per second.

DJ Engineering's managing director Jack Ng said the potential output of this system is at least five times more than that of conventional soil-based farming. For instance, a five hectare plot using this system can produce at least 2,500 tonnes of leafy vegetables compared with 500 tonnes from a conventional farm.

Moreover, the tower has a low carbon footprint - the pump that pushes water up to a holding tank at the top of the structure uses only one kilowatt per hour.

Mr Ng has set up a company, Sky Greens, to sell these towers for around $10,000 each. Each tower comes in 22 or 26 stacks.

Sky Greens is in the process of applying for 3.5 hectares of land in the Lim Chu Kang Agrotechnology Park to grow vegetables. It expects to put its first crop of Chinese cabbage, lettuce and kai lan on supermarket shelves this year.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan visited the prototype at the Sembawang Research Station yesterday.

Said Mr Mah: "So far, very encouraging. And, hopefully, this will be expanded and help us to achieve our target of 10 per cent local production of leafy vegetables."

The figure currently stands at 7 per cent. There are 37 leafy vegetable farms here and production has been steady, 8,300 tonnes in 2006 to 7,100 tonnes from January to September last year.

On Friday, this newspaper reported that farmers from the Kranji Countryside Association were concerned about the lack of young blood joining the farming industry.

In response, Mr Mah said he would "support" the move by farmers here to encourage young people to take up farming. Said Mr Mah: "Governments cannot force you to go into something you're not interested in."

What might work better was to nurture an interest in nature, Mr Mah noted.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the AVA told MediaCorp that, while land will be set aside for some local production of key food items, some existing farmland - due to land scarcity - may be required to "meet other needs of our population when their leases end".

The agencies said: "If the farmland is not needed for other purposes, we can continue to put them to interim farm use."

Most of the farms in Singapore are located in Lim Chu Kang. Many of the farms there have leases ranging from two to 11 years. The agencies said they will study the leases for the Lim Chu Kang farms and may consider extension of the leases on a case-by-case basis. Where possible, SLA will work with the URA and the AVA to consider two- to three-year lease extensions.

Rooftop farming a possibility: Mah Bow Tan
Esther Ng Today Online 29 Jan 11;

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan said he would consider rooftop farming - an idea mooted a decade ago by Dr Ngiam Tong Tau, then head of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) - but he pointed out that there were other competing uses such as recreation and solar panels.

He added that rooftop farming might not be suitable for a commercial building because of the air-conditioning plants on the roof.

As for aquaponics - growing plants or vegetables and fish in a contained system with fish waste as fertiliser - Mr Mah said that a number of companies here had tried it but there were "issues" to be resolved.

One of them was taste, he noted, though that could be overcome by educating consumers.

Mr Mah said that Singapore was not able to meet its earlier target of 20 per cent for green vegetable production because the amount of land for agriculture could not be spared under the island's masterplan for land use.

The AVA hopes to strengthen Singapore's food resilience by raising local production of fish to 15 per cent, eggs to 30 per cent and leafy vegetables to 10 per cent of consumption here.

Currently, the local production of fish, eggs and leafy vegetables makes up 4 per cent, 23 per cent and 7 per cent respectively of total local consumption.

Vertical farm produces 5 times more vegetables
Novel device could help land-scarce S'pore meet food production targets
Jessica Lim Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

THERE is now a new way to farm vegetables in land-scarce Singapore: farm skywards.

A private engineering company, D.J. Engineering, has teamed up with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) to come up with a device that can grow at least five times as many vegetables as conventional farming methods are able to given the same land area.

The device is 6m tall with tiers of planting troughs which rotate around an aluminium frame to provide the plants with uniform sunlight.

A water-pulley system, using rainwater collected in overhead reservoirs, rotates the troughs.

Harvests - of leafy vegetables like xiao bai cai and bayam - have already been made at a prototype 1,000 sq m vertical farm set up a year ago at AVA's Sembawang Research Centre. The farm employs 19 of these structures.

None of the vegetables is sold at supermarkets or restaurants here yet but will be at year end, if all goes as planned.

The project is budgeted to cost about $1 million, an amount borne entirely by D.J. Engineering, which set up a company, Sky Greens, to produce the vegetables commercially and market the vertical farming system.

With the turbulence in food supply and prices in recent years exposing the island state's vulnerability, such moves should mitigate supply shortages and hoarding in the long term.

'We cannot depend totally on imports. We are a land-scarce country and therefore we need to be able to maximise use of our land in the area of food production,' said National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan at the launch of the prototype farm yesterday, adding that local production acts as a buffer against severe disruptions in food supply.

'Farming leafy vegetables tends to be very land-intensive so innovative systems like this can improve the productivity of local farms,' the minister said.

Such projects, he said, would also help the Republic meet its targets for local food production.

The target is for the local supply of leafy vegetables - produced by 37 vegetable farms here - to hit 10 per cent of local consumption in three years, from about 7 per cent currently. Local production stood at 9,800 tonnes in 2009.

Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food from suppliers from over 30 countries.

Mr Jack Ng, the owner of D.J. Engineering, said he has been sending samples of the leafy vegetables to restaurants and supermarkets. Feedback, he said, has been positive.

'They say the vegetables are crunchier,' he said, adding that plans are under way to start a 3.5ha vertical farm in Lim Chu Kang and to sell the structures to other farmers and individuals.

The 48-year-old, who also designs buildings, is in the process of patenting his invention. The father of two, who dropped out of school after Secondary 4, came up with the idea during the financial crunch in 2009.

'Food prices were going up because of supply disruptions overseas, so I had the idea of growing more food here,' he said, adding that he was also friends with some farmers who helped him to develop the idea. It took him two years.

The vertically farmed vegetables, he said, would be priced at the same levels as those grown at conventional farms due to increased productivity and low operational costs.

Operational costs include raw materials like soil and seed and electricity to pump the water driving the structures. But electricity costs will come to only $3.50 per month per structure, he said.

The owner of restaurant Da Pao in Amoy Street serving home-grown food, Ms Christina Crane, 39, said she was hooked once she tried a sample of the vegetables: 'I looked at it and the vegetables looked really green. The taste is beautiful and it doesn't wilt in sauce.'

Others, like vegetable farmer Wong Kok Fah, 49, are excited too. The owner of an 8ha farm in Chua Chu Kang growing cai xin and xiao bai cai said he has appealed to the Government numerous times for more land to expand.

'We are always looking for more land, and we will definitely consider anything that can increase our productivity,' he said, adding that his farm is operating at maximum capacity.

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Underneath The Foliage

More than 40 years ago, when Singapore banked on lush parks and roadside verges to create jobs and attract investment, the mandate was clear: green Singapore and green it fast. Today, the Garden City has another urgent task: to care for its ageing trees. Extreme, erratic weather and the frenzied pace of construction are raising the stakes.
Tan Hui Yee Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

THE clock has been ticking for some time now.

More than 40 years ago, when the Republic was trying to find its footing, its leaders banked on lush parks and streetside verges to attract investment and create jobs. The mandate was clear: Green Singapore - and green it fast.

In the years that followed, Singapore experienced the flora equivalent of a baby boom: As many as 470,000 saplings, 34,000 instant trees and three million shrubs and creepers were planted between 1970 and 1980 alone.

Today, the affluent city state sits pretty with a lush canopy of 1.3 million trees in its parks, roadside verges and vacant state land. It is a model of environmental sustainability, with subways, viaducts and housing blocks that blend seamlessly into swathes of green connected with waterways.

But underneath the growing foliage lurks a growing demographic burden. Singapore is now grappling with its next urgent task: caring for its ageing trees.

Extreme, erratic weather is raising the stakes, while the city state's frenetic pace of construction puts the heat on urban trees and landscapers. More than 40 years after the first saplings were planted, Singapore is now being confronted with the mounting costs of succeeding in its early frenzied greening efforts.

ageing population

The fact is, urban living is tough on trees. It exposes them to constant heat, dust and choking fumes and crams them into a 1m-deep verge with drains on one side and the road kerb on another. It can also dramatically shorten their lifespans.

For example, according to botanist Veera Sekaran who runs landscaping firm Greenology, a Senegal Mahogany, or Khaya senegalensis, lasts 100 to 200 years in the forest, but the ones planted beside roads can start showing signs of deterioration from the age of 40.

Given how rapidly the Garden City sprouted in its early years, an entire batch of trees in its older estates will soon come of age. They now require scrutiny for signs of deterioration and disease.

'These are geriatric trees,' says Mr Sekaran, referring to some of Singapore's first plantings. 'We should be looking at them more carefully.'

The financial impact of caring for the aged has already been felt in some quarters. Many town councils, for example, have seen their landscaping bill bulge by an average of 30 to 50 per cent over the past 10 years, according to Mr Tay Ah Bah, senior horticulture manager of town management company EM Services. This is not just because of the usual increases in the cost of labour, machinery and waste disposal, he says, but also because maturing trees require more resources as they need to be pruned and checked more often.

rising costs

Over at the National Parks Board, the annual bill for watering, pruning and other maintenance and improvement work on urban greenery has swelled 129 per cent from $22.9 million in 1997 to $52.4 million last year. The area under its care has also doubled to 10,000ha.

The agency takes comfort that those figures, when broken down, look somewhat less startling. The cost of maintaining urban greenery - including staff salaries - has remained 'reasonably constant' at around $11,000 per ha per year over the last 20 years. NParks streetscape director Simon Longman attributes this to productivity savings from, among other things, figuring out the correct frequencies of maintaining its trees.

Yet, with the growing number of ageing trees, it is unclear how long the costs can be contained.

Mature urban trees need to be inspected closely for signs of frailty. Their thick, heavy crowns need to be trimmed to prevent them from being felled by wind tunnels created during new bursts of construction activity, say arborists.

The wind tunnels are created when the new buildings funnel strong winds through a narrow area.

Urban trees, unlike those in the forest, also do not have the benefit of natural selection and protection offered by dense clusters of greenery. Their species are hand-picked - depending on their hardiness, foliage, and what's available - and for the most part they bear the full brunt of the elements from their solitary plots.

At the same time, what is heartening is that trees are hardy and can take years to die.

But crowded, fast-paced Singapore cannot afford that luxury of letting them atrophy on their own. Its more than 1.3 million urban trees and millions of other shrubs are packed into an increasingly built-up 710 sq km island along with five million people. With leaves lapping against windows, branches arching over walkways, and roots poking out of concrete, they are deemed too risky to leave untouched if their health is in doubt.

To cope with the greying tree population, NParks in recent years has tried to replace some of its fast-growing but weaker trees like the Cabbage Tree, or Andira inermis, with hardier species like the Bunga Tanjong, or Mimusops elengi. It has tried planting new trees in between mature ones to prepare for the latter's demise.

Mr Longman says: 'We have to provide for time when older trees decline and have to be replaced. Trees don't live forever, just like humans don't live forever.'

But this succession plan does not take away the need to care for its pioneer batch of trees and their distinguished canopies, which are still the hallmark of the city state.

Global warming has also made the task more urgent. Climatologists expect the world to experience more extreme weather conditions like heatwaves, droughts and fierce storms. Arborist Jacqueline Allan from landscaping firm Nature Landscapes notes: 'In the past six years, the weather here has changed a lot, it's become more erratic. And with so many new condominiums being built these days, trees are now subject to wind tunnels that didn't exist before.'

The freak weather has already claimed one life. In July last year, as NParks was accelerating its tree-pruning programme to shape them up for the year-end thunderstorms, a strong descending column of air toppled a tree along Yio Chu Kang Road. The tree crushed a car, killing 32-year-old motorist Chua Loong Wai.

In response, NParks plans to increase the frequency of tree inspections from once every 18 months to once every year for those along major roads.

Mr Longman muses about its financial consequences: 'It's something we need to think very, very carefully about - how we need to accommodate this within our existing expenditure.'

What this all amounts to is Singapore's maturing mosaic of green, just like its fast-ageing population, will increasingly pose mounting and expensive challenges.

Mr Wong Yew Kwan, who was Singapore's commissioner of parks and recreation in the 1970s, notes wryly: 'We spent millions to plant trees, now we may have to spend millions to correct their sizes.'

instant gardens

Not that cost has slowed the pace of greening. The inhabitants of today's Garden City now root for ever bigger, faster and higher urban greenery.

Having grown up in verdant surroundings, they are less inclined to wait years for saplings to turn into trees. They demand instant foliage in new developments, and perfection from the get-go.

To meet these expectations, NParks keeps a rolling stock of more than 16,000 trees in 24ha worth of tree banks around the island. Saplings are nurtured there for about four years before they are planted along public roads or in parks.

For two prominent private sector projects - the integrated resorts at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa - hundreds of trees were specially trucked into Singapore and then nurtured in local nurseries for a few years before being planted in their designated locations.

This meant that, despite a tight construction schedule, Marina Bay Sands' 200m-high SkyPark was able to open last year complete with leafy Black Olive trees rising tall against the city skyline.

Lower-profile housing developments demand these 'instant gardens' too. In a remote corner of Seletar, row upon row of lush young trees in special bags are tended to by doting landscape workers from contractor Scenic Landscape, waiting for the day they are transplanted to the grounds of a 300-unit condominium off Holland Road.

foreign talent

The speed of greening in modern-day Singapore is remarkable, given that the country does not have much land to produce plants from scratch. The vast majority of the saplings, trees, bushes and other horticulture elements used here are imported.

In 2009, Singapore shipped, trucked and flew in $91 million worth of live trees, plants, cut flowers and other horticulture elements from around the world, from as far as Europe and Latin America. Out of that, $55 million worth came from neighbouring Malaysia.

The easy availability of imported greenery has bred the impatience for quick results that push the boundaries of nature. Horticulturist Lam Man Qing from landscaping firm Garden & Landscape Centre says some of her clients 'expect plants to cover the ground fully and flower immediately'. They don't understand that a garden looks its best only a few months after planting, she says.

Meanwhile, one landscape architect, who requested anonymity, recounts how he was recently 'forced' to accelerate work on a section of a park, just six months into its two-year development period.

The reason? A politician was visiting. Till today, he is aghast at his hurried creation because it sticks out like a sore thumb compared with the surrounding developments.

In recent years, Singapore's foliage has also been travelling upwards, driven by a need to incorporate green lungs on higher and higher storeys of densely populated skyscrapers. It is brand-new territory, and one which some quarters worry does not receive enough oversight. (See story: High anxiety)

In many ways, Singapore's greening story is a victim of its own overt success. The Garden City has made it hip - and economically viable - to be green. Its landscape designers are respected overseas, while developers clamour for the cachet of eco-friendly labels like the Green Mark.

But Mr Mason Tan, a former president of the Singapore Institute of Landscape Architects, fears this enthusiasm does not spill over into a more studied appraisal of sustainable greenery.

He says: 'What scares me now is that when you look at the proposal for a project, there is green drawn all over the place. Some of it is not workable, or requires a lot of engineering to take place.'

price to pay?

It is a worrying thought, especially since moribund landscaping prices are making it tempting for landscaping companies to cut corners to increase profits.

Property management companies like Knight Frank Estate Management and Wisely 98, which run more than 100 condominiums between them, both say the value of standard landscape maintenance contracts has barely moved up in the past 10 years.

While prices of trees have risen because developers are demanding higher-quality specimens, old-time landscape contractors like Mr Eliam Eng of Nyee Phoe Flower Garden bemoan the fact that the cost of turfing has remained constant at $20 to $22 per sq m in the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, landscape budgets have fallen by 20 per cent to 30 per cent over the past two decades, says landscape architect Sherman Stave from Sitetectonix, who has been based in Singapore for 20 years. He estimates that taking into account rising costs, the 'real value you are working with is 50 per cent less money than you had 20 years ago'.

Landscapers think the situation is due in part to the reluctance of many Singaporeans to pay anything more than the bare minimum for greenery. They have simply got used to landscaping being done on their behalf and as far as the extensive public greenery is concerned, it being free of charge.

The chairman of the Landscape Industry Association of Singapore, Mr Michael Teh, says: 'They take a lot of things for granted. They drive by, see the trees being planted and the grass being cut.'

Landscaping here unfortunately is still perceived as low-end, labour-intensive work, even though the country is slowly trying to grow its pool of horticultural professionals and researchers, and is getting attention for its biennial Singapore Garden Festival.

NParks chief executive Poon Hong Yuen says it increased its budget a few years ago so that its contractors could meet the higher standards it required of them, such as having more certified workers and better machinery. Productivity gains have allowed its costs since then to slide to close to what it was before.

It may be a different matter, however, for other buyers of landscape services. 'If you are not willing to pay for it, you get low standards,' he says.

Yet the issue could be larger than one of mere standards. Besides holding back industry development, rock-bottom pricing is making some firms resort to inferior or even pollutive soil mixtures, say landscapers here. (See story: Soil cheats polluting the ground)

It is a complex ecosystem that requires stronger regulation as well as constant scrutiny from a citizenry that takes more ownership of its urban greenery because they see its intrinsic value. The latter, says National University of Singapore geographer Victor Savage, may take a generation to come about.

For now at least, Singapore is waking up to the fact that its much-celebrated 'clean and green' tag comes with costs that will be keenly felt for years to come.

The work, it seems, is never quite done. As landscape designer Nick Ng from greening firm Oh Heng Huat puts it: 'It's not like building a building, which you can walk away from after it's completed.

'Once you plant a plant, you have to look after it every day. You cannot leave it alone.'

What more, a Garden City.

High anxiety
Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

While some landscapers think there should be restrictions on what type of plants and trees can be used on rooftops, others say it will overly constrain a fledgling industry
By Tan Hui Yee, Correspondent

THE storm clouds moved in, transforming the light drizzle into a heavy downpour.

Two hundred metres up in the sky, on the 57th-storey rooftop park of the Marina Bay Sands (MBS) integrated resort, hotel guests and visitors scuttled for shelter.

Meanwhile, the fronds of the tall foxtail palms flapped vigorously like flags on a pole. And the trunk of an almost two-storey-high Bucida buciera leaned dramatically as its crown caught the wind like the sail of a ship.

The SkyPark - one of the most prominent newcomers to Singapore's high-rise greenery scene - has caused some quarters to wonder if enough thought is put into the safety aspect of high-rise plantings.

As the Garden City becomes more and more built-up, the authorities are making a concerted push to promote high-rise greening through a mix of guidelines, incentives and seminars. For the past few years, the Singapore Institute of Architects and the National Parks Board (NParks) have also given out awards for good examples of integrated greenery, like that found in Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and Orchard Central mall.

But what is needed, as gardens are built higher up, is more stringent guidelines too, say landscapers.

There are simply higher stakes involved with skyrise gardens, notes Mr Veera Sekaran, who runs landscaping firm Greenology. A falling branch from a tall building can cause a lot more damage than one from a tree planted closer to the ground.

High-rise conditions require hardier and more wind-resistant trees.

Current regulations, however, look more into the structure of a building and whether it can support the weight of a high-rise garden, rather than what types of plants are used there.

Mr Sekaran says the authorities should restrict the type of plants and trees that can be used high up, but the NParks, Singapore's greening authority, is wary of that.

It does not want to constrain Singapore's high-rise greening movement when it is still in its infancy.

Dr Tan Puay Yok, deputy director of research at its Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology, says: 'The more we regulate, the more stifled the design becomes.

'Architects will find a previously approved plan and say, 'NParks has approved this before, I'm going to modify it a bit, and send it out, and you will be assured that this one will be approved very quickly.''

Agreeing, landscape architect Henry Steed from ICN Design International, who has been based in Singapore for more than 25 years, says: 'I don't think regulations will help.'

Instead, what will improve safety is if the Government requires building owners to hire 'qualified and experienced designers and contractors to execute these works', he says.

An MBS spokesman, when contacted by The Straits Times, says its choice of trees for the SkyPark was 'carefully discussed' to ensure the selection was sturdy and long-lasting. The bucidas, she says, were chosen because they have 'certain sculptural forms that were used in such a way to accentuate special areas on the Sands SkyPark such as main entry points and the perimeters'.

According to the sub-contractor that installed the SkyPark, Exklusive Landscapes, the trees have been trimmed to reduce their vulnerability during storms. Most of the trees also have their bases anchored down with steel cables and pre-cast concrete.

Exklusive's director Andrew Sze says maintenance work on the SkyPark is 'quite intensive'. 'We need to do light pruning every two months.'

That said, NParks does not rule out taking extra steps to keep high-rise gardens safe in the future.

Dr Tan says: 'Maybe at some point down the road, when we see more and more trees going really high-rise, there may be a need for us to come up with some sort of guidelines on wind-resistant trees.'

'Instant' trees take root in giant pots
NParks' 'container trees' can be transplanted in hours instead of weeks
Grace Chua Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

THESE trees could be the world's biggest potted plants.

The National Parks Board (NParks) has devised huge containers for 'instant' trees - trees that can be planted, pot and all, along roadsides and grass verges, and be transplanted with ease when they are no longer needed.

The so-called 'container trees' - possibly a world first - are part of a pilot project launched last night at the Cashew estate in Upper Bukit Timah. Holland-Bukit Timah MP and Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan was guest of honour at the event.

Dr Tan Puay Yok, deputy director of NParks' Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology (CUGE), explained that the agency is testing the scheme as a way to avoid disruption during construction.

Often, roadworks or construction means trees have to be moved or cut down. It typically takes two months of digging, pruning and preparation before a tree is moved, to prevent it from becoming dehydrated and to protect its roots.

With the containers, all it takes is a few hours, some digging and a crane to lift them out of the soil in which they are buried.

The 27 container trees have been planted at a small park in Cashew Terrace, lining a temporary road behind the upcoming Cashew MRT station. When the station is built, the road they stand along will be diverted and the park expanded.

At that time, the trees will be moved 'to do their duty along different stretches of road', said NParks' streetscape director, Mr Simon Longman.

The 1.5m-high containers, which are nearly 2m in diameter, resemble sections of pipe with holes punched in the sides to let in water and nutrients. With a tree and soil inside, each container weighs nearly a tonne, and can weigh as much as 10 to 15 tonnes when the tree is full-grown.

The species used, an endangered native tree called Bintangor bunut (Calophyllum soulattri), was picked as it does not grow too big. In a few years, it will be about 10m tall.

It took CUGE, working with engineers from Nanyang Technological University, three years to devise the containers. They also ran computer simulations to make sure trees would not tip over.

The containers are lined with a fabric mesh that grips tree roots.

Asked whether such 'instant trees' could pose safety problems, Dr Tan said the simulations showed the trees were safe at a height of about 10m to 12m, but NParks would be monitoring them.

Read more!

Soil cheats polluting the ground

Tan Hui Yee, Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

The stink in Sengkang earlier this year could have been just the tip of the iceberg, according to two compost producers. Soil quality is a major issue in Singapore, where a rising number of developments shrinks the amount of topsoil. This creates incentives for contractors to cheat by stuffing cheap material like discarded wood chips into the ground, resulting in pollutive soil. One landscape architect goes as far as to say that seven out of 10 contractors will throw clay or waste material into planting pits the minute their backs are turned.

LAST September, the air smelled of rot in Sengkang.

After a flood of complaints, the authorities traced the stink to a 200-tonne pile of sludge and wood chips deposited as 'compost' on the site of a half-constructed waterfront district in the north-east of Singapore. Its builder Koh Brothers was fined $3,000 and made to remove the putrid mound from the site.

Like most matters in the Republic, it was swiftly dealt with and just as quickly disappeared from public consciousness.

But some in the landscape industry murmured that this had been a transgression long waiting to happen.

Depleting sources of topsoil, stagnant landscaping prices and fierce undercutting here have ripened conditions for waste and potentially pollutive wood chips to be buried underground, warn landscapers. And the Sengkang incident could just be a manifestation of how little Singaporeans know - and care - about what lies beneath.

Soil quality has been a growing concern, say experts. The import of soil is tightly regulated here because of the potential parasites and other destructive micro-organisms in the material, but the sources of local topsoil are shrinking. Rapid development has doubled the proportion of built-up area in Singapore from 27.9 per cent in 1960 to about 50 per cent now.

And even if soil can be found here, it may not be suitable. The island's predominantly clay soil needs to be either replaced or improved with compost to support urban planting.

Mr Simon Longman, the National Parks Board's (NParks) director of streetscape, says: 'We don't have good soil any more. We have very lousy soil. The cost of transforming lousy soil into good planting material has jacked up the costs.'

As a result, the cost of soil mixture can make up as much as 30 per cent of a landscaping project's value. This big-ticket item is a tempting target for contractors trying to cut corners.

Landscape architect Sherman Stave from Sitetectonix, who has been based in Singapore for the past 20 years, estimates that seven out of 10 landscape contractors regularly try to add inferior or waste material to their soil mixture to lower their costs. Building contractors are guilty too - some dump construction debris in planting areas to reduce their own waste disposal bill.

He says: 'They bury it in the site and then put about a foot of topsoil over it to cover it up.'

The Straits Times understands from landscapers that such infractions are highly lucrative.

Horticulture waste that has properly composted and pasteurised to get rid of pathogens and pests costs about $30 to $50 a tonne. In contrast, raw wood chips comprising ground pieces of pruned branches cost only $5 to $10 per tonne. Since a typical condominium landscaping project requires several thousand tonnes of soil mixture, a landscaper can save thousands of dollars by cheating on the soil mix and adding assorted fillers.

But that's not all. If the circumstances are right, a contractor can even be paid to use these wood chips. This was the case three years ago with ANA Contractor, which was tasked by wildlife group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) to level its 2ha plot in Sungei Tengah for development. ANA filled the site with wood chips instead.

In the court case that followed when Acres sued ANA Contractor for damages, the contractor revealed that it was paid $20 'compensation' for each lorryload of wood chips it accepted from its sub-contractor. This amounted to about $40,000 for the whole project.

The resulting mixture rotted and stank, reportedly discharging brackish water that eventually polluted the groundwater and nearby Kranji Reservoir.

The National Environment Agency (NEA), when contacted by The Straits Times, said that it has encountered no other cases of contractors using pollutive soil mixtures in the past five years. While it conducts 'regular checks' on recycling companies to ensure they comply with environmental and public health concerns, it does not check on compost usage.

In a similar fashion, both the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Building and Construction Authority say they do not regulate the environmental standards of material used for earthfill at construction sites.

But six major firms approached for this article privately admitted that these soil cheats were a problem in their industry.

The chairman of the Landscape Industry Association (Singapore), Mr Michael Teh, while stressing that this was the work of a minority, added: 'It's not something that we are proud of, but it's something that can happen when prices are depressed.'

NParks, whose maintenance contracts for public parks and streetside greenery accounted for 6 per cent of the landscape industry's estimated $1.4 billion revenue last year, is confident it has licked the soil problem for its own work. It imposes stringent tests and inspections and also published specific standards for soil mixtures in 2009, making it harder for landscapers to cheat.

No one, however, knows the extent of the problem in the rest of landscaping work in Singapore.

The manager of a medium-sized landscaping company, which counts a town council among its clients, told The Straits Times that it is a matter of just cheating a bit, but not too much, to remain under the radar. 'If you don't go too far, nobody will notice it.'

His company tries to make its own compost from the branches and leaves it collects from the landscaping work. Without special equipment, this process can take three months or more. In the brisk world of Singapore development, that is three months too long.

He admits: 'Sometimes we don't wait for that long before we mix the wood chips into the soil. We just don't have the time.'

He knows the ensuing rot that continues beneath the soil attracts millipedes and damages saplings over time.

In a way, such cheating is facilitated by the recycling business.

Every year, the Garden City produces more than 200,000 tonnes of leaves, branches and other types of horticulture waste from the regular maintenance work on its urban greenery. To incinerate it, landscape contractors have to pay $77 per tonne. Many, however, prefer the cheaper option of sending it to recycling companies, which mostly charge them $30 to $50 per tonne of waste.

These recycling companies then either process the horticulture waste into compost or mulch, or burn them to generate heat and power.

According to the NEA, there are nine horticulture waste recyclers in Singapore, of which three - Kiat Lee Landscape and Building, GreenBack and ecoWise group - are the major compost producers.

GreenBack and ecoWise, a listed company, allege that backyard operators are collecting horticulture waste for the quick cash, only to grind down the wood and pass the unprocessed waste back to contractors for mixing into soil.

To the untrained eye, the wood chip-laced soil looks 'fertile' because it looks dark.

Of course, random soil tests are conducted by consultants overseeing landscaping work, but these are easily rigged, says landscape architect Mason Tan.

'When you go for inspection, they'll show you the good soil. When your back is turned, they will dump in the bad soil and cover it up,' he says, adding that many projects are done at night because of tight construction schedules.

Similarly, ecoWise group chief executive Lee Thiam Seng suspects that rogue contractors could be buying small quantities of the real compost to evade detection.

'Every alternate week', he says, the company gets a complaint about the quality of its compost which is purportedly used extensively on a development. After ecoWise investigates, it usually discovers that it had sold the contractor in question just one or a few truckloads of its compost.

A typical planting project in a new development requires hundreds of truckloads of the material.

Both ecoWise and GreenBack, which take no more than a month to process compost and produce about 6,000 tonnes every month in total, say they are hurting from the foul play.

Mr Lee laments: 'We are losing a seven-figure sum annually on composting. This is a lousy business to go into, because there is no enforcement.'

His company, he says, survives on its other types of recycling businesses and treats its composting programme as a way to fulfil its corporate social responsibility.

The greater worry is whether the soil cheats are causing pollution.

GreenBack's business development director, Mr Allan Hui, for example, fears unscrupulous contractors are resorting to using wood chips derived from industrial waste wood and household furniture to save money.

The varnish and other wood preservatives inside will not just impede plant growth, but also potentially contaminate the soil and groundwater, he warns.

And such a cost will be borne by many generations to come.

The rot beneath
Straits Times 29 Jan 11;

How do you tell if the soil under your feet is suspect? Landscapers The Straits Times spoke to gave three tips.

# If the ground is waterlogged all the time and algae starts appearing on top: Some contractors cheat by filling most of the ground with clay and putting a thin layer of proper soil mixture on top. But clay cannot absorb water well, hence the frequent flooding.

# Many, many millipedes: Millipedes feed on decomposing vegetation and other organic matter, and exist naturally on soil. However, when a lot of unprocessed wood chips are mixed into the soil - and these wood chips start to decompose - millipedes multiply rapidly.

# Black so what?

Don't be fooled by the colour of the soil. Dark-coloured soil may look fertile but it can be easily created by mixing in fake compost or wood chips.

Read more!

Indonesian navy to investigate possible asphalt spill from tanker that sank off Pulau Bintan

Antara 28 Jan 11;

Tanjungpinang, Riau Islands (ANTARA News) - The Indonesian Navy Headquarters in Tanjungpinang, Riau Islands province, is to monitor and investigate 1,100 tons of asphalt loaded in a Singaporean tanker that went down in Pulau Berhalas waters, Bakau Bay, Bintan on Thursday (Jan 27).

"We will investigate any possible spill of oil and asphalt carried by the sunken tanker to prevent sea contamination," a spokesman of the Indonesian Navy Headquarters IV in Tanjungpinang Naval Major Hariyo Poernomo said here Friday.

According to him, the authorities had not identified the containment method of the asphalt, whether in a tank or drums.

The Singapore-flagged tanker, which had hull number MT AB9, was manned by 14 Thai citizens and sunk in Bintan during its voyage from Singapore to Sumbawa, West Nusa Tenggara, at 1 p.m. of local time, Thursday (Jan 27).

The tanker developed a leakage on its cargo tank after hitting reef in Berhalas waters at 11.30 a.m. before sinking.

All 14 crew members managed to save themselves and the ship`s documents by lifeboats and rubber boats.

Indonesian navy personnel and fishermen from Bakau Bay, then rescued the 14 survivors. The Thais are now accommodated at the Immigration Office of Tanjungpinang.

The 14 survivors are Pisanu Panruksa, Sathit Hankla, Sakkarin Manakla, Werayut Na Pahattalung, Mana Sudthayalai, Prasert Chinphet, Nisit Keawpee, Chanwut Chaengtrong, Chookeat Khairam, Pisit Worapipattanakul, Santi Sae-Tan, Prakrong Sangbudda, Sombat Wantunat and Chakkit Boonkla.

Read more!

Africa's Lone Wolf: New Species Found in Ethiopia

Jeanna Bryner Yahoo News 29 Jan 11;

During a field expedition to Ethiopia, a team of scientists noticed something odd: The golden jackals there looked more slender with a whiter coat than they do elsewhere. Now, genetic analyses suggest these oddities are not jackals at all but instead more closely related to gray wolves.

In fact, until now these "highland jackals" were referred to as Egyptian jackals (Canis aureus lupaster), and had long been considered a rare subspecies to the golden jackal (C. aureus).

With new genetic evidence in hand, the team suggested the animal be called the African wolf to reflect its true identity.

"It seems as if the Egyptian jackal is urgently set for a name change," said study researcher Claudio Sillero of Oxford University's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU). "And its unique status as the only member of the gray wolf complex in Africa suggests that it should be re-named 'the African wolf,'" said Sillero, who has worked in Ethiopia for more than two decades.

(The gray wolf population extends to the Sinai Peninsula but doesn't exist on mainland Africa.)


"We originally set out to study the jackals in Northern Ethiopia, and discovered this new species by chance through the genetic analyses," said study team member Nils Christian Stenseth, a research professor and chairman of the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo in Norway.

Stenseth, Sillero and their colleagues, including scientists from Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, analyzed the DNA from the feces of five individuals of the mysterious animal, one of which they had filmed defecating so they could link for certain this creature with its DNA sample. They got another tissue sample, for DNA analysis, from a road kill in Arsi in southeast Ethiopia. And DNA samples were also obtained from golden jackals in Serbia.

The DNA comparisons showed C. a. lupaster is more similar to the gray wolves than to golden jackals.

The work also suggested gray wolves reached Africa around 3 million years ago before spreading throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

"Our findings suggest that the colonization of Africa by the ancestral stock of gray wolves took place about 3 million years ago and is today embodied in the animal that has hitherto been called the Egyptian jackal," Stenseth told LiveScience.

The new wolf is a relative of the Holarctic gray wolf, which lives in northern Europe and northern Asia, the Indian wolf and the Himalayan wolf.

African fauna

The findings add to our knowledge about the so-called Afroalpine fauna, an assemblage of species with African and Eurasian ancestry that evolved in the relative isolation of the highlands of the Horn of Africa.

"A wolf in Africa is not only important conservation news, but raises fascinating biological questions about how the new African wolf evolved and lived alongside not only the real golden jackals but also the vanishingly rare Ethiopian wolf, which is a very different species with which the new discovery should not be confused," said study team member David Macdonald, director of Oxford University's WildCRU.

Rare Ethiopian wolves split off from the gray wolves even earlier than the newly discovered African wolf.

Wolf conservation

Currently, the golden jackal is listed as a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which means the animal doesn't fit into any of the "endangered" or "threatened" categories.

"In Ethiopia, the golden jackals, which presently includes the cryptic African wolves, are systematically persecuted because of their threat to livestock," the researchers write. Even so and even though the Egyptian jackal is supposedly extremely rare, it is not protected, they add.

To get an idea of the true population numbers and distribution, the team said a thorough survey is needed in both Ethiopia and adjacent countries. Stenseth and his colleagues hope to continue their research with a study of the animal's ecology - how it interacts with other animals and its environment.

Study shows canid is 'wolf in jackal's clothing'
Mark Kinver BBC News 28 Jan 11;

DNA analysis has shown that the Egyptian jackal, previously believed to be a subspecies of the golden jackal, is a relative of the grey wolf.

Genetic information shows that the species, Canis aureus lupaster, is more closely related to Indian and Himalayan wolves than golden jackals.

Writing in Plos One, researchers said the renamed "African wolf" was the only grey wolf species found in Africa.

They also called for an urgent assessment of its conservation status.

There has been a long-running debate over whether the animal was a jackal or wolf.

In the late 19th Century, the renowned evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley said that it looked suspiciously like grey wolves (Canis lupus).

In the 20th Century, other biologists made similar comments after examining skulls from specimens of the species. However, the taxonomical classification remained unchanged.

The team of researchers from Norway, Ethiopia and the UK explained why they decided to focus their attention on the species.

"During a field study of the Ethiopian wolf in central Ethiopia, we noticed that some golden jackals differed slightly in their appearance from golden jackals elsewhere," they wrote.

They added that the canids were "larger, more slender and sometimes with a more whitish colouration".

This, combined with a photograph taken in 2004 in Eritrea that showed a "wolf-like animal" which was suggested to be an Egyptian jackal, prompted the team to investigate the area's highland golden jackals and sequence their DNA.

Exciting find

Co-author Claudio Sillero, from the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), said it was "really exciting" to find that what they thought was a member of a relatively common species, only to find out that the animal could belong to a much more unique grouping.

He added: "What I understand from the genetic work carried out by our Norwegian colleagues is that the consistency of the results returned very strong [similarities to other subspecies of the grey wolf].

"This is why we are very confident that we are looking at a different taxon."

Professor Sillero explained what the next step would be in order to get the species formally reclassified.

"Traditionally, you would do a formal morphological description of the specimen. However, there is a possibility that we could describe the species on genetic material alone," he told BBC News.

"We stopped short of doing that on this paper because we wanted to get the feedback, and the response has been phenomenal among colleagues.

"Somewhere along the line, I think we will push for it to be recognised as a separate species."

Until now, the range of the grey wolf was known to extend to the Sinai Peninsula but not into mainland Africa. It was presumed that the closest living relative in the continent was the endangered Ethiopia wolf (Canis simensis), found only in the Ethiopian highlands.

Professor Sillero, who is also chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's canid specialist group, explained that researchers found examples of the species at two highland locations, which extended the known range of Canis aureus lupaster by at least 2,500km south-east.

"This brings more questions than answers, such as how far into the heartland of Africa do they go?"

He added that he had recently received an "intriguing photograph" taken in northern Senegal.

"It was a picture of a wolf, there is no question about that, but we have never talked about wolves being present in Senegal before," he told BBC News.

"This wolf is hanging out with a family group of side-striped jackals. So this shows that there is complexity, not just in distribution but in sociality."

Read more!

Taiwan working hard on shark conservation: fishery official

The China Post/Asia News Network AsiaOne 28 Jan 11;

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Local people's lust for shark-fin soup has again become the target of international criticism as a report issued Thursday listed Taiwan as one of the world's "Top 20" shark catchers, although local officials said the country has done much to protect the fish.

The report, released by the British conservation group TRAFFIC and the U.S. Pew Environment Group, said a United Nations' scheme to preserve the world's sharks has been a resounding failure and pinned the blame on Indonesia, India, Spain, Taiwan and 16 other major catchers of the fish.

Responding to the report, a fishery official said Taiwan has spared no efforts in shark conservation in recent years, including prohibiting shark finning, a practice in which sharks are specifically targeted, their fins removed and their bodies thrown back into the sea.

Last year, a Taiwanese fishing vessel was caught by the South African authorities for violating shark fishing regulations. In addition to having its catch seized by South Africa, the fishing boat was barred by Taiwan's government from operating for three months and its captain received a one-year ban on shipboard work, the official said.

He added that the Fisheries Administration under the Council of Agriculture will implement a new restriction this year, under which fishermen will be required to unload shark's fins and bodies simultaneously to more effectively prevent them from throwing shark's bodies back into the sea.

The current regulation allows fishermen to unload shark's fins and bodies separately, which he said makes it difficult for fishery officials to identify whether the ratio of fins exceeds the cap of 5 per cent of the fish's body mass and whether the shark species are banned.

The newly released TRAFFIC report called for a far-reaching review next week when members of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meet in Rome.

The Jan. 31-Feb. 4 meeting of the FAO's Committee on Fisheries will look at a 2001 International Plan of Action for conserving sharks, skates and rays.

The plan sets out a 10-point set of guidelines for ensuring that shark catches are sustainable and binds signatories to set up a national plan and assess its implementation every four years.

Since then, massive overfishing - especially to serve the East Asian lust for shark-fin soup - has contributed to a plunge in shark numbers, according to the TRAFFIC report.

As many as 73 million sharks are killed each year and nearly a third of shark species are now threatened or near-threatened by extinction, the report said.

It pointed the finger at the "Top 20" catchers, identified from data reported to the FAO, which account for more than 640,000 tons annually, or nearly 80 per cent of the world total.

"Only 13 of the Top 20 have developed national plans to protect sharks ... and it remains unclear how those plans have been implemented or if they have been effective," it said.

Heading the list is Indonesia, which accounted for 13 per cent of global reported shark catches, followed by India (9 per cent), Spain (7.3 per cent) and Taiwan (5.8 per cent).

Other major catchers are Argentina (4.3 per cent), Mexico (4.1 per cent), Pakistan (3.9 per cent), the United States (3.7 per cent), Japan (3 per cent) and Malaysia (2.9 per cent).

Conservationists say that sharks, sadly demonized in movies and folk culture, play a vital role in ensuring a balanced marine environment.

-- The China Post/Asia News Network

Read more!

Thai coral crisis part of national agenda

The Nation 29 Jan 11;

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) is planning to make "efforts against coral bleaching" a national agenda.

"We will seriously solve this problem," Songtham Suksawang said yesterday in his capacity as the head of DNP national parks division.

Many diving sites at famous marine national parks in the Andaman Sea have been closed to tourists since January 21 after coral bleaching killed a large portion of reefs.

"We will propose zoning for diving attractions," Songtham said.

He added that admission fee hike and the ceiling on the number of tourists each day might also be used to protect the coral reefs.

Songtham was speaking during a brainstorming session on the coral bleaching crisis.

The event drew in academics, divers, government officials, and representatives from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

Prince of Songkla University lecturer Sakanan Plathong said coral reefs could be restored in many areas if relevant parties could minimise disruptive activities.

Sakanan called for the closing of diving sites and creation of artificial reefs.

"Constructions near the sea must also be strictly regulated," he added.

For Sea Foundation secretary Vittayen Muttamara, who also serves as the secretary to a PM's Office Minister Satit Wongnongtaey, said he would submit the information gathered from the brainstorming session to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva next Tuesday.

Apart from the coral bleaching, the session also heard about admission fee corruption at marine national parks.

An independent diving guide said he recently brought a tour group to a national park in the Andaman Sea and found officials offering him a 40percent discount on admission fees if he did not demand receipts or tickets.

"DNP should look into the matter," he said.

TAT representative Kulpramote Wannalert said a 2010 survey found that Thailand's sea was the most powerful magnet.

"Coral bleaching news has not made any big impact on tourism yet," she said.

Illegal fishing depletes fish in national park
Bangkok Post 29 Jan 11;

In light of recent stories regarding the coral bleaching at Similan Islands and other areas of southern Thailand, I want to bring to the world media's attention a problem that may have even more severe consequences for the future of Similan National Park. The problem is illegal fishing within the marine park and the plight of the shark population.

It is no secret to most people working on dive boats or day-trip boats to Similan that fishing is happening on a large scale even though the rules state that no animal is to be harmed within the park boundaries. Yet fishing boats are often seen at night time as close as 500 metres to the protected islands. There are also many large fish traps dropped well within park limits. These traps are clearly identifiable by the floats used to mark their locations. Many of these fish traps are seen on dive sites; I have seen these traps at up to 8 different sites.

Even more disturbing is the plight of Koh Tachai, another island supposedly protected by the national park. During the night it is common to see illuminated drift net fishing taking place around the whole island.

What is most disturbing is that this happens during the tourist high season when most fishing boats are kept away by tourist boats. I can only imagine the level of fishing that occurs during the low season.

The high season begins in November and as most Similan workers will admit, there is a severe lack of marine life, especially the larger pelagic species such as sharks, barracuda, tuna and trevelly. These fish populations slowly begin to recover during the high season only to then be fished out during the following low season.

In the past, at the start of the season when there are not many fish to be seen there was always beautiful corals as a distraction. This is no longer the case.

The national park wardens do not seem to do anything to stop any of these fishing activities. On the contrary, they are often seen visiting fishing boats and returning with fish or crabs. When on occasion the wardens are questioned as to illegal fishing activities, their standard answer is that they do not have the resources to police the marine park.

At present Similan is Thailand's premier national park which earns the Thai National Park Service hundreds of millions of baht every year, yet illegal fishing activities are destroying the park's resources. Islands are vital breeding grounds for fish stocks and if fishing is allowed to continue around these breeding grounds, then the future of this vital eco-system is in severe jeopardy.

When I first started diving in the Similan in 2004, it was common to see sharks on many of the dive sites. Now only six years later, I have seen less than 10 sharks in a total of three months! Every day at Tap Lamu Pier (the closest fishing port to the Similan Islands) long-line fishing boats and fish-trap boats return to unload a minimum 10 sharks daily per boat. The number of these boats is also on the increase. I fear that shark extinction is likely within the next few years unless something is done to rectify this situation.

Since I started diving in the Similan, I have logged every dive and recorded every shark I have seen. I have records from over 1,500 dives that show shark sightings falling dramatically. I have photographs of sharks being unloaded and also photos of fish traps on dive sites, fish-trap markers within park boundaries and of boats participating in drift net fishing.


Read more!

Beetle pest may encourage nesting turtles to move

Catherine Brahic New Scientist 28 Jan 11;

THE egg is exactly the same shape, size and colour as a ping-pong ball, but soft and covered in a thin, glistening fluid. Just seconds ago it was dumped into a hole in the sand by a female olive ridley sea turtle.

It's midnight on La Escobilla beach on Mexico's Pacific coast, where two biologists and I squat near the solitary turtle. She's one of the stragglers; last week, some 50,000 females swam in to lay their eggs, a phenomenon known as an arribada. The beach plays host to several arribadas each year. In 2007, 1.4 million nests were dug in this 15-kilometre stretch of sand, making it a contender for the largest sea-turtle nesting site in the world.

That's remarkable when you consider that just 20 years ago, the number hovered around 140,000. In those days, the slaughterhouse in nearby San Augustinillo was licensed to kill between 1000 and 3000 turtles a day. The beach, which now attracts a mix of Mexican and European tourists, was drenched in blood and littered with left-over turtle parts. I'm told the bay teemed with sharks, and the stench - so remarkable that it has its own name, chuquilla - could be smelled in the next town, 2.5 kilometres down the coast.

Then, in 1990, a national ban came into force, and La Escobilla was brought under state protection. The locals are allowed onto the beach during the day, says Erika Peralta Buendia, the biologist who runs the beachside monitoring station, but at night you need a permit. The lure of the supposedly aphrodisiac eggs is still strong.

But something far more insidious than humans threatens the colony. Hide beetles (Omorgus suberosus), each just 1 centimetre long, are eating their way through the stock of eggs and hatchlings. The damage is such that Ernesto Albavera of the Mexican Turtle Centre in nearby Mazunte estimates that just 2 per cent of the eggs that are laid here on average each year actually hatch. He believes he is witnessing the natural death of an arribada beach.

Arribadas are one of nature's most spectacular phenomena. Just two of the seven known species of sea turtles nest in synchrony - the olive ridley and the Kemp's ridley - and they do so on only a handful of beaches around the world (see map). No one knows why they do it, but what is becoming clear is that arribada beaches have life cycles of their own, driven by what the mass nesting does to the ecosystem.

On average, about 100 million eggs are laid in the sand each year by the turtles. They have no maternal instinct, and disappear into the night after they have laid their clutch. Latecomers kick up eggs that were laid just days earlier, creating a feast for crabs, birds, racoons - and the local population of hide beetles.

Albavera's studies have identified a sharp decline in fertility of the beach, and he thinks the beetles are responsible. But while he calls it "a big problem" he also thinks it is part of a natural cycle. "The arribada phenomenon is temporary," he says. "The turtles will move somewhere else."

Work by Ken Lohmann at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill points to what could be driving this cycle. His studies have shown that turtle hatchlings imprint on their beach of birth and use its geomagnetic signature to return later in life to lay their own eggs. If the number of eggs hatching at La Escobilla plummets, the number of females that arrive each year to lay should follow suit a few years later.

How arribada beaches are "born" is a greater mystery. The small town of Ixtapilla, 800 kilometres north of here, appears to be at the beginning of a new cycle. In 1997, it unexpectedly played host to its first arribada, and has done so regularly ever since. Albavera's limited funding allows him to send only the occasional student to Ixtapilla to pass on advice to the locals, who are keen to protect the turtles.

Back in La Escobilla, a tiny black turtle crawls over my foot on its way to the ocean. The most recent arribada has just drawn to a close, but the first eggs are starting to hatch from the previous event, some 45 days earlier. The baby may one day return to lay its own eggs, but the odds of survival are slim for any hatchling.

Whatever its future, it has already played a small part in the grand cycle that Albavera and his colleagues are trying their best to preserve.

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We need to eat less fish – not more sustainable fish

Simply encouraging people to be more adventurous with new species will not ease the pressure on fish stocks
Aniol Esteban 28 Jan 11;

Getting people excited about fish isn't exactly easy. But somehow Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Channel 4 have managed to do it, bringing a new level of public scrutiny to the plight of fish stocks. Hugh's Fish Fight campaign already has more than 600,000 signatures, and now has big retailers promising to change their labelling and sourcing policies. They deserve congratulations and support.

There is, however, a lingering concern about their proposed solutions.

Simply encouraging British people to be more adventurous and try new species such as gurnard, coley or dab will not automatically ease pressure on stocks most at risk. On the contrary, it could result in an increase of total amount of fish eaten. It may be happening already: last week, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose reported increases in fish sales of 25% and 15%.

People in Britain each consume about 20kg of fish per year. That's only half of what a Spaniard eats, and three times less than a Portuguese, but it's still much more than what the average world citizen eats. In the context of declining global fish stocks and rising global demand – as reported by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – increasing the total amount of fish eaten in the UK is unlikely to solve overfishing.

The UK eats more than its stocks are able to produce: it imports more than twice the amount of fish product it exports, and depends on fish from other countries for more than five months in the year. This dependence on fish from abroad makes the industry more vulnerable and reduces food security in countries that need the fish more than us.

But this trend is increasing. If the UK had to rely on its own fish supply to satisfy current demand, it would run out by mid July: three weeks earlier than last year. Quite bad for a nation surrounded by potentially rich and productive seas, but still better than Spain, France and Germany, which are fish dependent for more than half a year.

The main reason for this fish deficit is that three-quarters of EU fish stocks – including British ones – are overexploited and produce much less than they used to, or what is possible. Stocks, when properly managed, are a long-term source of prosperity and jobs: unsustainabe management is economically, and ecologically, careless.

A recent study by the Centre for the Economics and Management of Aquatic Resources (CEMARE) shows that UK catches for cod, whiting and haddock could be five, four and three times bigger if stocks were allowed to recover, with the potential to increase economic gains ten-fold to more than £500m. How this is done and who would benefit most from this is a matter for another discussion, but the figures give an idea of why fish stock restoration deserves at least as much – if not more – attention as the promotion of new fish species into British fish eating habits.

Creating a market for under-utilised species, which would otherwise be discarded, could help to stop edible fish being thrown overboard. But, as the OCEAN2012 coalition suggests, the priority should be to ensure that unwanted catches are avoided, and that any ban on discards is based on the principle of avoiding unnecessary wastage, rather than creating new markets that use discards of unwanted or unsustainable catches such as immature fish or endangered species.

The upcoming reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is a perfect opportunity end to discards and restore stocks to healthy and sustainable levels. Getting this piece of policy right will be critical to guarantee that in the not-too-distant future European consumers can go to the supermarket and buy fish with peace of mind, knowing that it all comes from sustainably managed stocks.

In the meantime, responsible consumers can reduce the amount of fish they eat – by far the safest option when it comes to satisfy concerns about the sustainability of stocks. They can also buy products certified by the marine stewardship council (MSC); it's far from perfect but it's the most widely recognised standard. Buying fish caught with static gear, such as gillnets, pots, bottom longlines, also helps, as will eating species that are at low levels of the food chain, including mussel, squid, crab, Norwegian lobster, sardines or sprat, which tend to be more abundant and reproduce more rapidly, so eating them has less impact on the marine environment.

Simply bringing new fish species on to the menu without getting core fish stocks back into shape will only take the UK a step closer to becoming a fish-predator nation, such as Spain, Portugal or Japan, which all eat a much wider variety of fish but are far from providing models of sustainable fisheries management.

• Aniol Esteban is head of environmental economics at the New Economics Foundation

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Malaysia leads way in environmental study of deforestation

Ecologists use project to devise guidelines on how to manage land conversion.
Natasha Gilbert Nature 28 Jan 11

As Malaysia prepares to convert around 7,000 hectares of forest into an oil-palm plantation, ecologists are starting one of the biggest environmental projects ever run.

The ten-year-long Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems project will be launched on 29 January in the forests of the Maliau Basin on the island of Borneo, where the study is based.

It is being funded with 30 million ringgits (US$10 million), from Sime Darby, a Malaysia-based company involved in palm-oil production, and will look at changes to biodiversity and the resources and processes provided by the ecosystem as the forest is logged and replanted with oil palms.

"We are covering such a wide variety of questions," says Rob Ewers, an ecologist at Imperial College London and the project's scientific director. "Other projects have mainly focused on a single issue such as trees or biodiversity."

For instance, the project will look at which animal species survive in a forest as the level of logging intensifies until the land is fully converted into an oil-palm plantation. Researchers will also investigate how wide the riparian zone — the interface between land and rivers — needs to be so that the water is not polluted by eroded soil and fertilizers. They will also study how patches of conserved forest totalling 750 hectares contribute to the environmental effects of the logging.
Government backing

The local Malaysian government owns the land and decided to convert the forest into an oil-palm plantation to bring in extra income, says Ewers. It has strong ties with the science community and has agreed to collaborate on the project by conserving the patches of forest.

A main aim of the study is to develop guidelines on how to design and manage oil-palm plantations to minimize the environmental impacts.

"We want to use the data to optimally design future forest clearance for agricultural income and biodiversity. There is always a trade-off. But how can we design the landscape so as to maximize income and minimize environmental costs?" asks Ewers.

Researchers have already begun sampling birds and will begin to do the same for insects in February. Logging is due to start in the second half of the year, after which the oil palm will be planted.

Tim Killeen, an ecologist with Conservation International, a not-for-profit environmental group, says that he is "glad to see that someone is doing this study".

Killeen says that in the past, conservation efforts have mainly focused on creating protected areas, and that attention now needs to be paid to the remaining unprotected forests that are going to be exploited.

"We are expanding our vision to look beyond natural ecosystems and towards improving functional landscapes so they are not just making food, for example, but also providing ecosystem services. This kind of study looks at that question in a well organized way," he says.

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Asia on Alert for Spread of South Korea's Livestock Disease

Environment News Service 27 Jan 11;

ROME, Italy, January 27, 2011 (ENS) - The UN Food and Agriculture Organization today notified veterinary and border authorities in Asia of an unprecedented outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in South Korea, urging them to be alert for livestock showing signs of infection by the highly contagious disease and urging proactive vaccination campaigns.

Juan Lubroth, FAO's chief veterinary officer, said that the situation in Asia is a cause for concern, given the approaching Lunar New Year holiday during which large numbers of people will be on the move in the region, many of them carrying meat and some transporting animals.

"Authorities in Asia should make sure they are in a position to detect any instances of the disease and respond rapidly in an appropriate way. FAO is advocating proactive vaccination campaigns designed to stop the spread of the disease," said Lubroth.

Foot-and-mouth disease is caused by a virus that affects cloven-hoofed animals, including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, causing high fever. It is characterized by lesions in the animals' mouths and feet. The disease does not affect humans.

Since a cattle farm in Andong, North Gyeongsang was found to be positive for the virus on November 28, 2010, South Korea has been unable to curb the spread of the disease even though the government has imposed quarantines, initiated a vaccination campaign targeting nine million pigs and three million head of cattle, and culled 2.2 million animals.

The overall cost of the foot-and-mouth disease control effort in South Korea to date is estimated at $1.6 billion, according to the FAO.

"The current FMD dynamics in eastern Asia, as well as the magnitude of the outbreak in South Korea, are unlike anything that we've seen for at least a half century," said Lubroth. "This makes preparedness and monitoring extremely important right now."

Subhash Morzaria, the Asia regional manager of FAO's Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Disease Operations, said the outbreak must be tackled as a regional problem.

He said the agency's regional office for Asia and the Pacific is planning a meeting of chief veterinary officers of East Asian countries to discuss the situation and coordinate their response.

Lubroth said that when responding to outbreaks, countries should adhere to accepted practices that adequately take animal welfare and environmental impacts into account.

Media reports of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in North Korea have not been confirmed by authorities there, said the FAO.

Foot-and-mouth disease has spread through China in recent years and entered eastern regions of Russia and Mongolia for the first time, the FAO said.

The disease recently affected an estimated 1.5 million Mongolian gazelles, whose migration may have helped carry the virus into China. FAO sent an emergency response team to Mongolia to help authorities cope with the disease.

One of the early signs of the disease in infected animals is the excessive production of saliva and nasal discharges. The foot-and-mouth disease virus may survive for several hours outside the infected animal, especially in cold and humid environments.

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Brazil dam go-ahead sparks anger

Yahoo News 28 Jan 11;

BRASILIA (AFP) – Environmentalists and indigenous people Thursday defiantly rejected the Brazilian government's decision allowing work to begin on a giant hydroelectric dam, while the state prosecutor filed an appeal to suspend the ruling.

Brazil's environmental agency on Wednesday approved "necessary infrastructure" for the controversial $15-billion Belo Monte dam, which would become the third-largest in the world.

The ruling authorizes Norte Energia to clear almost 600 acres of forest and build roads to the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon River in the northeast Brazilian state of Para.

Sixty civic groups and non-governmental organizations representing everyone from environmentalists to local peasants have formed a coalition called "Xingu Lives Forever."

The coalition, in a statement, called the government's ruling a "dictatorial act," adding that they were "going to continue opposing this project with all our might.

The dam's opponents, supported by the likes of Hollywood film director James Cameron, argue that it's "not economically viable" and will displace 16,000 people because of the planned flooding on the banks of the Xingu River.

State prosecutor Felicio Pontes filed an appeal, arguing that agreed-upon conditions have not been met, particularly concerning the rehabilitation of degraded zones.

"Due to decisions like this, we can say today, (the environmental agency) is the author of the worst offense against the environment in the Amazon," Pontes said.

The federal government says Belo Monte is vital to the economic development of the country. It has said that no native land is threatened and that it is spending millions of dollars to offset the social and environmental impacts of the dam.

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UK climate-proofing plans unveiled

David Shukman BBC News 28 Jan 11;

Roads built to the same standards as the scorching south of France; fish moved from the overheated Lake District to cooler waters in Scotland; lighthouses threatened by rising seas.

From measures in use already to seemingly far-fetched scenarios for the future, these are some of the findings in the first batch of climate adaptation plans submitted to the environment ministry Defra.

Under the Climate Change Act, 91 major organisations responsible for key aspects of national infrastructure have to explain how they will cope if the climate alters as forecast.

The latest projections suggest the potential for major change - for example that it is "very likely" that southern England will on average be 2.2-6.8C warmer by the 2080s.

That range of possible warming reveals the huge uncertainties inherent in climate forecasting. Nevertheless the aim of the studies is to ensure that long-term planning takes account of the possible risks.
Rocky road

Many of the ideas for adaptation have been aired before but this is the first time they have been brought together in a formal set of strategies.

In its plan, the Highways Agency recognises the risk of roads deteriorating more rapidly in higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather.

One solution, adopted in 2008, is to copy the specifications for road foundations used in southern France.

The Environment Agency warns that rising temperatures will be stressful for wildlife - with fish at the greatest risk.

It raises the radical option of relocating some fish species from the Lake District to habitats further north where the waters will be cooler.

The Trinity House Lighthouse Authority - which runs 68 lighthouses on the English and Welsh coasts - reckons the majority of its installations will face no impact.

But it details four lighthouses that would be threatened by sea-level rise unless action is taken, with a further nine whose landing docks may be at risk in future.

Trinity House estimates that five lighthouses may suffer from the erosion of the cliffs they stand on - but points out that this process may have nothing to do with climate change.
Waves on the track

Network Rail raises concerns about keeping passengers cool in heatwaves, ensuring that rail lines do not buckle in high temperatures and preventing embankments collapsing as a result of flooding.

One of its most vulnerable stretches of track is on the south Devon coast between Dawlish and Teignmouth where storms have often seen waves break over the line.

Network Rail says the sea level at this point has risen 30cm since 1840 and is projected to rise by a further 70cm by 2050 and 1.45m by 2100. The risk of the track being 'overtopped' is predicted to increase by 50% by 2020 and to treble by 2080.

It has already invested £8.5m in the past 10 years in fortifying the sea defences and establishing an early warning system to watch for rockfalls from the cliffs.

Network Rail believes it is "ahead of the game" by planning for future changes but warns that any adaptation will need to be dove-tailed with flood protection schemes for neighbouring Teignmouth and Dawlish.

National Grid has submitted two reports - for gas and electricity. On gas, it warns that pipes could become exposed through subsidence or erosion and it is working to replace old metal pipes with ones made of polyethylene.

On electricity, it identifies 13 substations - unnamed - that are vulnerable to a one-in-a-century flood - a relatively high risk for such important assets.

The 2007 floods had provided a wake-up for the industry when a vital substation at Walham in Gloucester - serving tens of thousands of households - was almost overwhelmed.

Later this year, power companies, water utilities, harbour authorities and others will submit their plans, leading ultimately to a national adaptation strategy.

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