Best of our wild blogs: 21 Mar 11

Latest Green Jobs in Singapore [14 - 20 Mar 2011]
from Green Business Times

7th Anniversary Yeehar
from Pulau Hantu

Poachers @ Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
from sgbeachbum

Dugong sighting at Chek Jawa?
from wild shores of singapore

Through the looking glass
from The annotated budak and For the birds

Pet trade, palm oil, and poaching: the challenges of saving the 'forgotten bear' interview with Siew Te Wong, from news

Monday Morgue: 21st March 2011
from The Lazy Lizard's Tales

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Animal smuggling on the rise in Singapore

Numbers climbed from 305 in 2008 to 1,511 last year
Feng Zengkun Straits Times 21 Mar 11;

DELIVERY within days. New arrivals from overseas. After-sales medical care included.

The item advertised for sale in local online forums? Star tortoises from Australia at $400 each - but whose import is banned here.

Illegal sellers also offer other prohibited animals, ranging from hedgehogs and monkeys to snakes.

These animals cannot be kept as pets to prevent the spread of diseases and introduction of species which could threaten native wildlife, and to curb illegal trade, especially in endangered animals.

Some smugglers also sell animals which can be obtained legally here, such as pedigree dogs, but at lower prices.

The number of animal-smuggling cases has climbed in recent years - from 14 in 2008 to 23 last year, said the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA).

The number of animals smuggled in rose from 305 in 2008 to 1,511 last year, with one case involving 1,200 birds, the largest single haul here.

But the actual number of animals smuggled in may be higher. Mr Chris Shepherd, deputy manager of Traffic South-east Asia, a wildlife protection group, said: 'Smuggling reports from other countries tell us there is much more going into and out of Singapore.'

The Straits Times understands that some illegal sellers make several trips a month to get animals from overseas contacts. The animals usually come from India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia, though Syria and the United States were also cited as sources.

Once an order is placed, an overseas supplier is contacted. The animal is flown in as cargo to a country near Singapore because it is difficult to smuggle it directly here.

Animals smuggled into Singapore could be sold by word of mouth or advertised on local websites such as Locanto, SGClub and Pets Fanatics. Some sellers even leave their cellphone numbers. Time from order to delivery takes four days to two weeks.

Some buyers are willing to pay from $4,000 for a monkey to $30,000 for a ploughshare tortoise.

Others will pay $250 for a hedgehog or $400 for a star tortoise, just for the novelty factor. One such post on Locanto reads: 'Interested in getting a hedgehog for my girlfriend for a Valentine's gift (something different this year).'

There are also buyers looking for a good deal. Mr Ricky Yeo, president of Action for Singapore Dogs, said these people want pedigree animals - like dogs - quickly and cheaply, and do not care whether they come with papers.

He said these dogs can be legally imported but smugglers want to skip the import papers, quarantine period and fees, which can cost at least $350.

A golden retriever puppy costs $50 in Thailand but can go for up to $2,400 in pet stores here. When brought in by smugglers, they go for $1,000 to $1,500.

Veterinarians said they have treated banned animals or have heard of others who have done so. But they urge the owners to donate them to the zoo or hand them over to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA).

The trade's global nature worries activists, including Mr Louis Ng, executive director and founder of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society.

They said illegal sellers are likely to be part of a syndicate as otherwise it would be difficult for them to bring in an animal from, say, the US.

X-ray machines as well as the police and ICA staff are deployed at Changi Airport and other checkpoints. Mr Ng suggests the use of sniffer dogs which have been deployed with some success in South Korea and Britain. But the AVA said they were less cost-effective than other measures.

AVA also monitors online sources. Smugglers face fines of up to $500,000 or up to two years' jail, or both.

Ultimately, greater consumer awareness is needed to curb demand for illicit animals. Said Mr Yeo: 'If people insist on papers when they buy pets, then we have a chance.'

Curb animal smuggling with deterrent sentences
Straits Times Forum 25 Mar 11;

MONDAY'S report ('Animal smuggling on the rise') reveals the scale of this illegal trade and it is evident that animal smugglers are making a mint, and think nothing of the risks involved.

Singapore's location and accessibility, together with high overall consumer demand, make it a lucrative centre for transhipment or local sales.

One vital factor to bear in mind is the cost to the animals themselves. Birds packed tightly into narrow cylinders is just but one example, with many dying during the journey.

It is a cruel trade that will be difficult to tackle unless consumers everywhere refrain from hankering after a cheap deal or from desiring to own a living being because of its novel appeal.

The authorities must monitor animal smuggling vigorously and impose deterrent sentences.

If animal lovers wish to own a pet, consider adopting from our shelter or from another animal welfare group.

The public should research thoroughly and establish the source of a pet if they choose to buy one commercially.

This will go a long way to help alleviate the suffering of many animals exploited in the illegal pet trade.

Deirdre Moss (Ms)
Executive Director
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

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Singapore will have enough water even without new agreement: SM Goh

Hetty Musfirah Abdul Khamid Channel NewsAsia 20 Mar 11;

SINGAPORE : Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has said Singapore will have enough water even if there is no new deal when its second agreement with Malaysia expires in 2061.

He said investments in technology and infrastructure will enable the country's drive towards water self-sufficiency.

Mr Goh said this as Singapore celebrated World Water Day on a bigger scale this year on Sunday.

It was still dawn, and participants were already at the Kolam Ayer waterfront to kayak some five kilometres to the Marina Barrage.

The event was made possible because of Singapore's investments in enhancing its waterways and its emphasis on preserving the precious resource - water.

Environment and Water Resources Minister, Yaacob Ibrahim, said: "It is a responsibility for all of us as Singaporeans to keep this strategic resource not only clean but also not to waste it. Use it wisely, use it judiciously, because we have to pass this to the next generation."

Making sure water management is sustainable is also crucial, given the limited supply.

At Marina Barrage, Mr Goh was optimistic in his speech about meeting future needs.

He said: "When Singapore gained independence, we were almost totally dependent on imported water from Malaysia. Today, we are much less dependent. And come 2061, we will have enough water for ourselves if there is no new water agreement, when the second Water Agreement runs out.

"Besides imported water from Malaysia, we have water from local catchments, NEWater and desalinated water."

Under the second Water Agreement that was signed in 1962, Singapore is allowed to draw up to 250 million gallons from the Johor River.

Mr Goh said the country will continue to expand the water supply to meet the needs of the population and growing economy.

The plan to have Singapore's second desalination plant is on track. To be completed by 2013, the plant is expected to boost the water supply by another 70 million gallons per day.

This year's World Water Day is held in conjunction with the Inter-Religious Organisation Day.

A minute's silence was held to remember the earthquake and tsunami victims of Japan.

Mr Goh and the religious leaders also flew a 24-square metre kite at the Green Roof to launch the Inter-Religious Organisation's kite festival.

Kites representing the different faiths were distributed for donations, which will be channelled to Mercy Relief for their operations in Japan.

World Water Day was also celebrated in several locations islandwide, with ministers and MPs giving support.

They included an exercise session at Lower Seletar Reservoir - with Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam taking part - a run at Jurong Lake - flagged off by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam - and a clean-up session at Bedok Reservoir, where Foreign Minister George Yeo was Guest of Honour.

The first Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters Learning Trail was also launched to let students discover the 130-year old MacRitchie nature reserve.

The educational programme was launched by Senior Minister of State for National Development and Education, Grace Fu.

- CNA/ac/ms

Clean water a result of a wave of effort
SM: Setting up '4 national taps' needed political will, determination, creativity
Rachel Chang Straits Times 21 Mar 11;

THE clean and readily available water Singaporeans have today is a result of political will, sheer determination and creativity, said Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong yesterday.

At an event at the Marina Barrage to mark World Water Day, he recalled how Singapore, at the time of independence in 1965, was almost totally dependent on imported water from Malaysia.

That is no longer the situation following investments in technology and water infrastructure.

'Today, we talk about our four national taps as if setting them up was as easy as building roads or houses,' he said to a crowd of more than 2,000.

'Be assured it was not,' he added.

The 'four national taps' strategy, realised around 2000 when Mr Goh was prime minister, refers to the current four sources of water supply: imported water, water from local catchments, Newater and desalinated water.

Mr Goh said that come 2061, when the second of Singapore's two water agreements with Malaysia expires, the country will have enough water for itself even if new agreements are not signed.

The first water agreement will expire in August this year.

The event was among a string of celebrations held by national water agency PUB and civic groups across the island to mark World Water Day yesterday.

Singapore leaders and MPs joined cyclists, kayakers and participants in mass exercises, as well as students and members of the public in a range of activities at eight places around Singapore.

The leaders included Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who flagged off an 'amazing race' in Jurong to teach people about water conservation.

In Sembawang, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam led a fun walk at Lower Seletar Reservoir, while Foreign Minister George Yeo teamed up with, among others, students of Damai Secondary and Temasek Polytechnic to clean up Bedok Reservoir.

In addition, several companies and schools, like Hwa Chong Institution, cleaned up or adopted reservoirs, pledging to care for the water bodies.

At Marina Barrage, the celebration had an extra touch of colour.

Sharing the spotlight was the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), which was celebrating its 62nd anniversary. The scene was a lively picture of Catholic nuns in habits and Taoist priests in robes mingling with excited schoolchildren and grassroots volunteers.

Mr Goh later joined religious leaders on the grass-covered roof of the Barrage, where they observed a minute of silence for Japan, which was hit by a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in the past week.

He then witnessed a taiji display by more than 700 practitioners from Taoist temples in Singapore, and helped to launch a massive, multi-coloured kite imprinted with the IRO's logo.

The joint celebration was a happy coincidence. As the IRO's honorary secretary, Sister Theresa Seow, explained to reporters, the organisation had booked the Barrage last September for its anniversary activities.

PUB had also eyed the venue for its event, and so suggested a collaboration.

The IRO, representing 10 different faiths, spent three weeks considering the offer, Sister Seow said.

'We realised that underlying all religions, there's a use of water in our rituals, as cleansing and also as a symbol of life,' she said.

'Joining the PUB today has awakened our consciousness that we really have to promote among our followers the sacredness of water and our duty to do our part to preserve it.'

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Sowing seeds of food security for Singapore

Community crop project aims to cut reliance on imports
Jessica Cheam Straits Times 21 Mar 11;

PRIMARY 6 pupil Hui Ling Ler, 12, of Yu Neng Primary School in Bedok has developed a habit of regularly checking on the school's gardens.

During recess and after school, she and her classmates will diligently water the plants in the school's 20 experimental plots. They are anxiously awaiting the first harvest of some seeds they planted earlier in January - square watermelons.

Yu Neng's little plots are but one of a growing number of urban farms emerging across the island.

The square watermelon plots are part of a larger initiative by The Living Project - a joint venture between Alpha Biodiesel and farming and landscaping firm Garden Asia. It works with emerging gardens across Singapore and aims to source for corporate funding to keep the gardens going. So far, it has secured funding from Starbucks and Brewerkz and is in negotiation with other companies.

Alpha's chief executive Allan Lim said the idea was hatched late last year with Garden Asia director Kenny Eng because they 'wanted to change the way Singapore society eats'.

And so, Comcrop - short for 'community crop' - was born.

The Living Project, which has 10 gardens, plans to groom at least 25 more this year and even more the next. It will do so by recruiting Singapore's almost 400 community gardens which are managed by residents' committees islandwide.

The firm has calculated that with 100 farms of an average conservative size of 25 sq m - about half the size of a standard studio apartment - it could harvest enough vegetables to provide up to 2per cent of Singapore's needs, and do its part in helping to reduce the country's reliance on food imports.

'It seems small, but actually, it is a sizeable quantity to produce. And every little bit counts towards improving Singapore's food security,' said Mr Lim.

The project is timely, given that food security has been a pressing issue for governments worldwide recently as global food prices soared for the eighth consecutive month in February to hit a new record.

World Bank chief Robert Zoellick warned last month that global food prices have reached 'dangerous levels', adding that the impact could complicate fragile political and social conditions in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Climate-related disasters, such as storms and droughts which have damaged the world's agriculture-producing countries, will continue to disrupt supply even while demand is expected to go up.

The United Nations' International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) has said that global food production needs to rise by 70 per cent to meet the world's population growth - expected to rise from sevenbillion this year to ninebillion by 2050.

So what does this mean for Singapore?

Industry experts interviewed by The Straits Times say it is high time food security featured more prominently in national debates. After all, Singapore imports more than 90 per cent of its food and is a price taker in global markets.

Inflation, which has been on the rise, has been partly fuelled by the rising costs of food, which accounts for 22 per cent of the consumer price index. In Singapore, food prices rose 0.9 per cent in January this year, compared with the month before.

Singapore Environment Council executive director Howard Shaw said: 'We should consider food security with as much urgency and vigour as we have considered water and energy security.'

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has been taking steps to improve this over the years. It has diversified the city's sources of food and partnered the private sector in projects such as the Jilin Food Zone in China, where key food items will be produced and secured for Singapore.

It has also set higher standards for the industry. Last week, it announced targets for local fish farms to increase productivity or face losing their licences.

The Government is also promoting local farming, which plays an important supporting role in ensuring food supply resilience. The AVA's $10 million food fund, launched in 2009, helps firms raise farm efficiency by automating labour-intensive processes such as vegetable packing and feeding of fish.

Ifad regional economist of Asia-Pacific Ganesh Thapa said there is more Singapore can do to improve the stability of food supply in the region.

Ifad, which aims to eradicate rural poverty and ensure global food security, has 166 member states but Singapore is not one of them.

Mr Thapa said Singapore could consider joining the organisation, supporting it through donations or contributing to policy work.

Singapore's strength as a finance centre can also play a role in empowering these communities, Ifad president Janayo Nwanze told The Straits Times in Rome last month. 'Many of the farmers in South-east Asia lack access to loans. Through access to financial services and markets, such farmers can increase their productivity and strengthen the supply of food to the cities.'

Mr Nwanze also highlighted one other obstacle in ensuring the sustainability of global food production: Farmers suffer a poor image, and young people in particular do not think it is a respectable job.

In this regard, The Living Project hopes to help Singaporeans appreciate farming. Said Garden Asia's Mr Eng: 'We want them to appreciate growing their own food, appreciate what they eat.'

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Malaysia: Environment-friendly Artificial Reefs For Sandakan Waters

Bernama 20 Mar 11;

SANDAKAN, March 20 (Bernama) -- The Sandakan waters at Batu Sapi, near Pulau Shanghai, will be the second location in the country to be installed with environment-friendly artificial reefs produced by Sirim.

Eight artificial reefs made from ceramic that does not pollute the water, will be implanted in the area.

The implanting ceremony was officiated by Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Datuk Seri Dr Maximus Ongkili here Sunday, and the project will benefit about 400 fishermen in the area.

Ongkili said the environment-friendly reefs were the result of research conducted by Sirim using ceramic which was suitable for making artificial corals as the substance would not react to its surrounding environment.

"Seaweed and other marine plants which provide food for the fishes and other marine life are expected to grow on the artificial reefs in six months to two years' time." Ongkili said Sabah became the first and second location for this type of artificial reef, with the first implanting done at Pulau Sebatik, off the eastern coast, in January by the community in Sulabayan, Semporna.

He said the project was under the ministry's technology application for the community programme or TopMosti@Komuniti to assist grassroot communities improve their livelihood.

He added that 200 technologies had been shortlisted for implementation according to the local communities' needs and these included solar energy generation, computerisation, fishing technology, new crop cultivation and fertilising technique.


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'EU not supporting NGOs against palm oil'

Rupa Damodaran Business Times 21 Mar 11;

THE European Union is not using environmental non-government organisations as a "fifth column" to help it achieve its Renewable Energy Directive (RED) which places palm oil for biofuel at a disadvantage, says Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht.

"RED is a result of a legislative decision between the council and parliament. We're advancing sustainability in palm oil especially biofuel but it is not restricted to palm oil only.

"We're not supporting NGOs for doing that (attacking the palm oil industry) but we're also not restricting them. Of course, they try to influence what is happening in the European Parliament but they are entitled to do so on their own behalf," he said.

He was speaking in an interview with the Business Times during his two-day stopover in a visit to Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea last week.

He was asked to comment on recent allegations and comments by government officials and think tanks and claims that the EU has been running afoul of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) guidelines.

Many felt that Western edible oil producers were resorting to environmental NGOs since they cannot use trade protectionist measures.

He said he was not aware of a proposed joint action by both the Malaysian and Indonesian authorities to the WTO against the 27-member EU for the way it has formulated the RED as well as reports of it funding up to 70 per cent of the operating budgets of environmental NGOs.

The palm oil industries of both major producers, worth over US$50 billion (RM152 billion) annually, and commanding a 60 per cent market share of the world's 17 oils and fats market, are finding themselves hapless against this European strategy.

De Gucht did not want to respond to British Member of European Parliament Roger Helmer's allegation, saying it was the position and view of an individual MEP out of a total of 750. (Helmer claimed in Kuala Lumpur last month that the European Commission alone had provided more than euro60 million [RM356.8 million] to these pressure groups through a programme called LIFE+). Such funding implicates the EU for creating barriers to trade for agricultural products from developing countries.

"We're not putting restrictions on the exports of palm oil to the European market - we're simply giving advantage to palm oil that is produced in a sustainable manner.

"RED applies to biofuel and not other applications for palm oil in the food industry or cosmetics," he argued, adding that recent market trends showed that less palm oil was finding its way to biofuel.

For 2010, Malaysia and the EU conducted trade totalling RM122.8 billion, of which palm oil came in a far second to the exports after electrical and electronics (E&E), commanding a 7.6 per cent share of exports, totalling RM5.25 billion.

On the ongoing bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) talks between Malaysia and the EU, de Gucht said there will be a sustainability chapter which will address the import of palm oil into the region.

The part on labour will be done with reference to the International Labour Organisation while the aspect on environment will be based on the environment conventions of the United Nations, he explained.

"The way it is implemented may vary from one FTA with another, and so it will be a subject of discussion between both countries."

Malaysia is also engaged with the EU on the FLEGT ( Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) Voluntary Partnership Agreement for trade in timber products.

"We're negotiating with Malaysia and we are confident that it will come into play in a short notice. The delay is on the Malaysian side, and we hope the government will be able to work it out."

Would environment play a stumbling block in furthering exports to the EU?

"We expect countries to respect our requirements. Malaysian companies are doing so. For example, fish exporters adopted a self-imposed ban to ensure that their long term reputation on the EU market remained intact."

In the long run, trade between both the EU and Malaysia will be served by high environment standards, he added.

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Think globally, but act locally when studying plants, animals, global warming, researchers advise

University of Texas at Austin EurekAlert 20 Mar 11;

AUSTIN, Texas—Global warming is clearly affecting plants and animals, but we should not try to tease apart the specific contribution of greenhouse gas driven climate change to extinctions or declines of species at local scales, biologists from The University of Texas at Austin advise.

Camille Parmesan, Michael C. Singer and their coauthors published their commentary online this week in Nature Climate Change.

"Yes, global warming is happening. Yes, it is caused by human activities. And yes, we've clearly shown that species are impacted by global warming on a global scale," says Parmesan, associate professor of integrative biology.

Policy makers have been recently pressing biologists to dissect how much of the changes observed in wild species are due specifically to greenhouse gas driven climate change verses other possible factors, including natural changes in the climate.

However, research funding is limited, and the scientists feel it should be directed more toward studies on species adaptations and conservation of compromised species rather than trying to figure what percent of each species' decline is due to rising greenhouse gases. One reason is that, from the perspective of wildlife, it doesn't matter what proportion of climate-change impacts are caused by humans.

"A changing climate is a changing climate, irrespective of its cause," write the scientists.

They argue that the focus ought to now be placed on the interactions of climate change with impacts of other human activities, such as air pollution, invasive species, urban sprawl and pressures from agriculture.

"Effects of climate change are everywhere, but they act on top of all these other stresses faced by wild species," says Parmesan. "What we need to do now is to focus on extensive field experiments and observations that try to understand how multiple factors, such as exploitation or habitat fragmentation, interact with a changing climate to directly affect these species."

Take, for example, the Quino checkerspot butterfly in Southern California.

The butterfly became endangered in the 1980s principally because of growth of Los Angeles and San Diego. Only a handful of populations remain in the United States, and they suffer from a complex of factors. A warming and drying climate is shortening the life of host plants, causing caterpillars to starve. The plants themselves are suffering from competition with introduced Mediterranean geraniums, likely encouraged by nutrients in rain falling through polluted air.

"All of these things have been happening, so when we see one of these populations wink out we suspect them all," says Singer, a professor of integrative biology who has been working on this species since the 1960s. "Climate change is definitely part of the context for this butterfly in this system, but it isn't the only driver."

The scientists offer another example in corals. Incidences of coral bleaching have increased since the 1970s due to unusually high ocean temperatures associated with global climate change. Corals can recover from bleaching, but biologists have noted that recovery is worse in areas that have been hit directly by human activities, such as over-fishing, introduced species and water pollution.

For conservation biologists and policy makers, it's critical to understand those local driving forces, so they can make appropriate, and sometimes immediate, interventions. Tackling climate change itself is a problem on a different level.

"Think globally about climate change and how that's going to affect your national park, or your reserve or your endangered species," says Parmesan, "but in terms of action, you've got to think locally about what you need to do in terms of habitat restoration, removing invasive species, assisting species migration, etcetera. Those are things you can and should do something about in the short term."


Parmesan shares a Nobel Prize with the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for their 3rd Assessment Report.

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Tokyo at risk: Can megacities cope with disaster?

Marlowe Hood Yahoo News 20 Mar 11;

PARIS (AFP) – The cascade of catastrophe that has befallen Japan highlights the vulnerability of megacities to disaster, including fallout from a nuclear accident, say experts on urban risk.

Greater Tokyo, home to 35 million people, mostly escaped the devastation wrought by the March 11 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that swept the coast of northeastern Honshu.

Tokyo is also, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), beyond the reach of the radioactive plume emanating from the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant -- at least for now.

But what if the quake had struck nearer the city, like the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923? Or if the tsunami had occurred opposite Tokyo Bay? Or if the nuclear plant that had been crippled was an ageing facility at Hamaoka that lies 200 kilometres (120 miles) south, and thus upwind, of the capital?

"This incident puts in clear evidence the fragility of megacities in every aspect: physical, social, economic and ecological," said Fouad Bendimerad, head of the Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative, an international scientific organisation that analyses disaster risk.

"Many previous assumptions about the resiliency of megacities will be put into question."

Tokyo is hardly the only supercity facing multiple threats from natural and manmade disaster.

For Chris Ipsen, head of the Emergency Management Department for the city of Los Angeles, the drama unfolding in Japan is a reminder of how things might go horribly wrong in a crowded metropolis.

"It is something we definitely relate to. Obviously we have a lot of earthquake threat, it's our number one hazard. We face tsunami hazard as well," he said by phone.

But, Ipsen said, the chaos that could arise from a nuclear accident remains poorly understood.

"The new one for us is the radiation. We have several power plants here," he said.

Los Angeles' new 110-million dollar emergency operations center in downtown L.A. was put through its paces last July in a simulated radiation emergency -- the detonation of a small nuclear device, or "dirty bomb," somewhere in the city.

"We were quickly overwhelmed by the scenario," Ipsen said. "There are a lot of things we need to tweak."

South of Los Angeles, eight million people live within a 50-mile (80-kilometre) radius of North San Diego County's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, built in the 1970s.

In the eastern United States, the governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, last week called for the closure of the 40-year-old Indian Point nuclear plant, located only 55 kilometres (35 miles) from New York City.

The scenario that most haunts emergency planning experts is how to evacuate millions of people from a city when key infrastructure is down.

"The major problems in the evacuation of a megacity where you have a disaster are about transport, access roads, clogging and energy supplies that stop working," said Helena Molin Valdes, deputy head of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR).

For Jorn Birkmann, an expert on vulnerability assessment and risk management at the UN University in Bonn, emptying the Japanese capital is simply not an option.

"An evacuation of over 35 million people within the urban agglomeration of Tokyo in a short time period seems to be very unrealistic if not impossible," he said by email.

Birkmann pointed out that a fifth of Tokyo's population is aged over 65, and thus less able to prepare and execute an evacuation. "If you assume that only half this group will need assistance, you are still talking about 3.5 million people."

Tokyo's municipal government has long had emergency response plans for earthquakes and tsunamis, the first involving evacuation to open spaces such as large parks to avoid fire hazard, and the latter to more distant higher ground.

In 1999, the city added measures for nuclear emergencies, said Takaaki Kato, a professor at the University of Tokyo's School of Engineering and one of the country's top experts and government advisors on earthquake risk.

"At present, Tokyo's metropolitan government has a plan for nuclear accidents composed of a preparedness plan and emergency response. the latter focuses on gathering information and distributing it to the public," he said by email.

Kato emphasised that evacuation of large numbers of people remains a hypothetical scenario, but said it was feasible.

"The most important factor will be orderly behaviour of the citizens and cool-headed understanding of the situation," he said.

All the experts interviewed agreed that cultural factors weigh heavily and Japan -- especially Tokyo -- is as well prepared for disaster as any society can be.

"If this had happened in a megacity with less preparedness capacity, the toll would have been in the millions, at least the hundreds of thousands," said Valdes, citing Mumbai and Dhaka as being particularly vulnerable.

"In this sense, the scenario in Japan is positive despite all these horrible impacts."

Since World War II, government at all levels in Japan has developed what is now a deeply-rooted, three-layered strategy for dealing with calamities.

They call it 'self help, mutual assistance, public assistance' -- people are trained since kindergarten," Valdes said.

But Birkmann said the unprecedented amalgam of disasters may have overloaded even Japan's capacity to cope.

"The cascading event of an earthquake, a tsunami and ... major difficulties with critical infrastructures might have reached a tipping point that one could not be prepared for," he said.

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