Singapore's environmental issues in 2013: Minister Vivian

Monica Kotwani Channel NewsAsia 29 Dec 12;

SINGAPORE: Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the priority and challenge will be in inculcating more socially gracious attitudes among Singaporeans.

Dr Balakrishnan said his ministry is also studying other countries to cope with a potential sea-level rise.

National water agency PUB has been making preparations for rainy days and the monsoon season, such as widening drainage and installing closed-circuit cameras (CCTVs).

The Environment and Water Resources Ministry said there are another 15 projects in the pipeline for PUB in the coming year.

It is a race to get Singapore "water independent" by ramping up land catchment areas and building more Newater plants.

Singapore's first water agreement with Malaysia expired in 2010 and the second one is due to expire in 2061.

In addition, the ministry and its statutory boards will take a tougher stand on littering.

From 2013, fines for first-time offenders will increase from S$300 to S$500.

The Home Affairs Ministry will be installing CCTVs in almost every block for for surveillance, and the National Environment Agency (NEA) will ride on this technology to catch high-rise litterbugs.

"We have to put a stop to high-rise littering -- it's unacceptable. Nearly 90 per cent of us live in high-rise apartments, and I get no end of complaints from people saying people are throwing all kinds of stuff," said Dr Balakrishnan.

As penalties increase, 2013 will also see stepped up enforcement, including giving citizens the power to take action against those who litter.

"We're going to start a course next year, which will be very similar to the same course our NEA officers go through, before they're issued with warrant cards to take action if need be, when a minority of people litter, or act irresponsibly in our environment," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"From next year onwards, we will have to step up enforcement, in order to send a message to anyone considering dropping something, that the probability of being caught is actually going to be higher, and therefore we hope there will be a greater deterrence. Our reputation of being clean and green was a hard-won reputation, and we cannot afford to lose it."

NEA also introduced the tray-return scheme at nine hawker centres in 2012. Over the next two years, it will roll out the scheme to all new and existing hawker centres.

In both cases, the ministry said it is about instilling a sense of graciousness in behaving responsibly, and using peer pressure to effect change.

Assoc Prof Paulin Tay-Straughan from the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore said: "This is the part where we have to be very careful when we talk about growing active state ownership, getting ordinary Singaporeans to step up and be part of this informal policing.

"It has to be done in a gracious manner. It has to be done in a way that does not publicly humiliate others, because then each time you get humiliated, you alienate that person, or a particular segment of the population will get alienated, and when you alienate people, you will not be able to get their buy-in. So the way to do it is to really learn how to encourage others towards pro-social behaviour in a gracious manner."

Assoc Prof Tay-Straughan said one way of instilling socially gracious behaviour is to learn from the past.

She said: "A very good example would be the queuing culture. Not that long ago, we did not queue. Remember the masses -- that when the bus comes, everybody pushes, to try to get up the bus. But then we decided that's not the right way to manage public behaviour, so we started the notion of the queue culture. And we've done that very well, right? You don't get fined for not standing in line. The reason you end up standing in line is because other people would tell you, 'This is a line, and you should be behind me.'

"We need to encourage Singaporeans to do that. When somebody litters, to say, 'Excuse me, the bin is around the corner.' Or to go one step further to when somebody drops a pack, as you're walking along, just pick it up and deposit it at the next bin you see."

On a larger scale, the Environment Ministry said it will do more to deal with the effects of climate change.

In 2011, the ministry raised the minimum levels for land reclamation by at least one metre, as an adequate buffer against a potential rise in sea levels.

This year, the National Climate Change Secretariat released a strategy document, detailing the government's multi-fold initiatives -- from reducing carbon emissions, to beefing up research capabilities for clean technology solutions.

The ministry said it is also studying countries like the Netherlands, where one-third of the country is below sea-level.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "It's a whole challenge of engineering, design, planning and learning new techniques in order to cope with sea-level rise. We also have to cope with greater volatility in weather."

Dr Balakrishnan said being a small country, Singapore will have to prepare for the worst, and take nothing for granted.

He said: "We're so focused on building up our water, our freshwater generation capacity, desalination and recycling, it is also part of the long-term preparation for climate change. That's a really major challenge which is creeping up on us, but actually, can end up being literally a tsunami that we have to deal with."

- CNA/xq