Prof Wong Poh Poh on climate change and Singapore's coastal vulnerability

Nurturing a love for nature
Prof Wong Poh Poh says that to properly guard against climate change, Singapore needs to share more of its information on coastal vulnerability with its citizens.
Grace Chua Straits Times 28 Aug 15;

A new SG50 book to be launched tomorrow, Singapore's Scientific Pioneers, honours 25 of the Republic's science trailblazers. Here are some of its highlights.

Who: Dr Wong Poh Poh, retired associate professor of geography, National University of Singapore.

Notable achievement: Co-ordinating lead author on the global team that worked on the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize that year.

Professor Wong Poh Poh emerges from around a corner in the garden of his Hougang home holding a potted plant - Avicennia marina - a robust, common species that, belying its name, thrives even inland.

Prof Wong admires the versatility of the grey mangrove, as it is more commonly known.

It provides animals with food, humans with burning fuel, and coastlines with shelter from high-energy waves.

"(If) you want some mangroves in your garden, you just come and collect them," the 70-year-old retired professor says.

"The day I'm no longer around, these seedlings will be my standing testimony that mangroves can grow in my garden."

Like the grey mangrove, he has thrived across a range of roles. He is most noted for being a coordinating lead author of the seminal work by the IPCC, the international body of scientists that reviews and reports on the latest climate change data for policymakers.

In 2007, IPCC and former US vice-president Al Gore shared the Nobel Peace Prize for disseminating knowledge on man-made climate change.

For Prof Wong, it was the highlight of a four-decade career studying coasts - specifically, how human activities like tourism reshape the coastline, and how the coastline in turn influences human activities.

Coastal geomorphology is a field that chose Prof Wong.

As a student at the then University of Singapore, he did so well in geography and so enjoyed the subject that the department, short of Singaporean lecturers, sent him to McGill University in Canada for a PhD.

But what would he study?

'Beach bum' turning the tide on climate change

"Singapore has no big rivers, no forests, no deserts, no glaciers, and no mountains," Prof Wong says with a laugh. "The only thing left was beaches."

But by the 1970s, when he returned, most of Singapore's natural beaches had vanished beneath reclamation, so Prof Wong looked to other field sites, for example, studying how monsoons affected beaches on Malaysia's east coast.

Shortly afterwards, he was inspired to apply his hard science skills to coastal tourism. The Association of American Geographers had just published a path-breaking paper on the geography of tourism.

"Tourism used to be at the fringe of serious studies. Nobody studied it except in business school."

His interest was in the interplay between resorts and coasts - how the geomorphology of a coast affects the layout, nature and management of a resort; and how resort development affects the coast.

As one of the first geographers to carve out a niche in coastal tourism, Prof Wong surveyed resorts around Asia, including those on rocky shores that had hauled sand in to create artificial beaches; resorts which had installed their own corals; and those with man-made freshwater and marine swimming pools.

In 1992, he wrote a research article on the impact of the sea-level rise on coasts.

In 1997, the Singapore Government asked him to review IPCC's Regional Impacts of Climate Change special report. He was invited to be a lead author for IPCC's third assessment report in 2001, and for the fourth report in 2007 - which ultimately won the Nobel - he was a coordinating lead author.

He reprised his role as a coordinating lead author for the fifth report published last year.

Singapore became a fascinating case study in coastal development. From 1965 till today, its land area has grown by 25 per cent - from 580 sq km to 720 sq km. The country has only a few remaining natural coasts, such as on Pulau Ubin and a rocky shore at Labrador Park.

What is more important is to make sure the reclamation does not have adverse impacts, he believes.

For example, he says, sediment moves through Singapore waters roughly from east to west; a large reclamation project in Changi, such as for the airport terminals, blocks the natural movement of sediment and results in erosion at East Coast.

To properly guard against climate change, Singapore needs to share more of its coastal-vulnerability information with citizens. "In other countries, they share information openly," he says.

"Coastal-vulnerability studies are paid for by the taxpayer and should not be restricted to press releases or announcements in Parliament."

Such information would be useful to insurance firms, developers and, most importantly, ordinary people who live near the sea.

Singapore needs to prepare for climate change, and not just by raising land reclamation levels and building seawalls. It will have to decide what space should be given over to coastal ecosystems as sea levels rise and they retreat further inland.

It also needs laws to govern so-called "managed retreat", he adds. "There's a lot of interest from lawyers. If you have a piece of land which is under water in 10 or 20 years, what are your property rights - are they on land or in the sea? Who will compensate you?"

Prof Wong, of course, knows a thing or two about nature's ferocity. In 1969, as a graduate student, he spent a few months at a field site called Santa Rosa Island, a sandy island with dunes off the Florida coast. When Hurricane Camille hurtled through the US state at more than 200kmh, he and his colleagues hunkered down in a local hotel.

"You could see pebbles being blown horizontally," he says. "In the hotel, we had to tape down the glass doors with sticky tape to make sure that they wouldn't shatter into small pieces if they broke."

Unfortunately, he points out, most young Singaporeans do not share his familiarity with nature.

His three sons are lucky enough to have grown up in a house with a large garden with hibiscus plants, a chiku tree and many banana trees, but most young people are not and, in the process, an intrinsic geographic identity has seeped away.

To resuscitate our island consciousness and nature awareness, he has many suggestions. These include maintaining Pulau Ubin's rural environment, introducing compulsory gardening and gardens in schools, and extending gardening schemes in housing precincts.

For his part, he recently introduced mangrove planting to local schools. He also initiated a project to set up mangrove restoration sites in South-east Asian countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

These sites would serve as fish nurseries and storm surge buffers, and help stem coastal erosion. They would also become a source of livelihood for villagers, who could manufacture mangrove-planting modules and benefit from eco-tourism.

The self-described "professional beach bum" has made a career out of going to the beach. Now, it is time to give back: "The more satisfying thing is contributing something back to the coastal community."