Best of our wild blogs: 30 Jan 15

Sand and a sargassum sea
from The Long and Winding Road

Homefarm as the next generation of retirement housing in Singapore
from Green Drinks Singapore

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Forest City: Healthy foreign investment or blight on Iskandar?

Go-ahead for project once again raises spectre of real estate glut in south Johor
Anita Gabriel Business Times 30 Jan 15;

THE winds of change will soon blow over the quaint laid-back villages with their wooden jetties dotted with fish cages. The area, located in the southwest of Johor Bahru, is where mostly fishermen families have lived for over 30 years.

From this, the mega development Forest City will rise. To be built over nearly 2,000 hectares - four-fifths of that on reclaimed land - straddling decades, the iconic project is led by one of China's biggest developers, Country Garden Holdings, with the backing of the Sultan of Johor.

Understandably, the native residents will be upset over the bursts of activity in their sleepy town and potential loss of livelihood, as construction hurt water quality and marine life.

According to insiders, the grandiose project will be "very high end" with spacious luxurious villas, complete with Versace and Armani furnishings and dazzling water features (think Dubai's Palm Islands).

"Every island will stand out as a key destination. If Country Garden can market the project as a fantastic place to invest and go to, then won't it be fantastic for Iskandar?" said a top executive of a firm with projects in the Iskandar area.

But not everyone shares that view; such mammoth projects rolling out in quick succession has turned investors wary of Iskandar, Malaysia's bustling southern growth corridor, now noticeably beset with big over-crowding concerns.

Two weeks ago, the tense wait ended for this lofty project, with a gross development value of RM600 billion (S$223.4 billion) involving four man-made islands from 58 hectares to over 1,000 hectares - twice the size of Sentosa island; the developer received the green light to go ahead from the Malaysian authorities following a detailed environmental study on the project that is located close to Singapore's Second Link.

Last June, the developer stopped work that had begun six months earlier - by then, 40 per cent of the reclamation work under the first phase was already done - after Singapore expressed concerns over the project's transboundary impact and sought more details from Malaysia.

To date, Singapore has yet to receive any official response on the detailed environmental study from Malaysia.

This is not the only project that has stirred concerns between the neighbouring countries, whose ties have greatly warmed in recent years.

At the Causeway, a waterfront and "marine lifestyle" development is set to substantially alter Johor Bahru's skyline. Led by Hong Kong-listed Guangzhou R&F Properties; this Tanjung Puteri project sits on 47 hectares, two-thirds of which involve two plots of reclaimed land on either side of the Causeway.

The brakes were also slammed on this project last June after two months of work had begun pending a detailed environmental study and more recently, early this year, it received the nod to proceed.

While Tanjung Puteri is dwarfed by the Forest City project, it is a startling 290 metres from the Malaysia-Singapore international border, as disclosed in the project's environmental impact assessment report.

These mega projects have also sparked worries in the real estate market, which may weaken the allure of Iskandar and its sound business proposition as a hinterland to Singapore.

The massive overbuilding by gung-ho Chinese developers, coupled with the property curbs in Malaysia, have raised some red flags for Iskandar real estate.

Property prices are sliding, with Johor's house price index falling 2.8 per cent in the third quarter of last year, the first decline since 2012's first quarter, says an analyst, who expects prices to stay weak over the medium term.

That's getting hard to stomach, particularly for local property developers such as UEM Sunrise, one of Malaysia's largest property firms and land owners in Iskandar, which has deferred its high-rise launches in Nusajaya - one of five flagship zones in Iskandar - and slashed internal sales projections on the back of the anticipated supply glut.

Not all are naysayers. From the foreign direct investment lens, some say it augurs well for the state and by extension Malaysia that China investments are rising at a healthy clip.

But they warn that these big developments need to be part of a well-crafted and coordinated big-picture policy; anything less could prove too much of a risk for Iskandar, whose success in recent years after a slow start from its 2006 inception was touted as a handsome showcase of Malaysia's transformation efforts.

This is more so as real estate has become Iskandar's centrepiece, pulling in some 40 per cent of total investment dollars poured into the economic zone, which is deemed still in the early stage of a rapid build-up with footfall still far from the desired critical mass.

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Haze a major concern for SEA Games

LOW LIN FHOONG Today Online 29 Jan 15;

SINGAPORE — Haze will be a major concern for organisers of the 28th SEA Games in Singapore, particularly if conditions reach the same levels as in June 2013, when the Pollutant Standards Index hit a record high of 401 — which is considered hazardous.

To mitigate the risk of haze wreaking havoc on the June 5 to 16 Games schedule, outdoor events such as athletics’ 20km walk and marathon, and the triathlon at Orchard Road and East Coast Park have been scheduled earlier in the Games period to allow for them to be rescheduled and held later if the haze hits.

“We are very concerned because haze is an uncontrollable factor and it will affect the whole mood and sense of celebration,” said Mr Lim Teck Yin, executive committee chairman of the Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee (SINGSOC) yesterday.

“It not only affects the athletes but the spectators who are exposed to the haze. Our benchmark here is to complete 75 per cent of all events if we are hit by haze to declare a successfully conducted Games. We have to work with the SEA Games Federation and technical delegates, and we have done our homework in event scheduling. In that scenario (where 75 per cent is not completed), we are left with no choice but to say the Games must conclude and we will convene in two years’ time.”

But Mr Lim said cloud seeding — a form of weather modification used for the 2008 Beijing Olympics that disperses substances into the air to increase rain — to reduce air pollution will not be used during the SEA Games. The region, particularly Malaysia and Singapore, is affected annually by the haze caused by forest fires in neighbouring Indonesia, and Mr Lim said there is little they can do except to ride out the situation.

He added: “While we have some level of control over contingency planning of competition schedules, we really hope those who have a position to influence this will do the necessary.”

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Participants at consultation session discuss ways to battle dengue

Alice Chia Channel NewsAsia 29 Jan 15;

SINGAPORE: There were a total of 243 dengue cases from Jan 18 to 24 this year, which is an improvement from the peak of 898 cases seen in the first week of July last year.

However, Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was speaking at a consultation session organised by the ministry on Thursday (Jan 29), said he felt more can be done, especially at construction sites. Last year, mosquitoes were found breeding in 7.5 per cent of such sites. There were 88 dengue clusters associated with construction sites, with an average of 32 cases per cluster.

Participants at the consultation session suggested improving hygiene standards at the sites. Other topics discussed included the option of releasing mosquitoes infected with a particular bacterium Wolbachia, as a method to control the mosquito population.

This was mooted by the Government last year, and a panel of international and local experts appointed by the National Environment Agency supported the use of this method in Singapore.

They also recommended careful selection of the bacteria strain to use, a concern shared by participants at the session.

Associate Professor Vernon Lee from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said: "The strain has to be suited to the local environment. We want it to be able to compete with the existing mosquito population, so that it can actually then suppress the mosquito population locally."

Punggol South Women's Executive Committee member, Ms Khong Sow Cheng, said: "It is quite technical. I am in a grassroots organisation, so we are wondering how it can be possible to make it simpler to inform the public about all these things, because it is something very new and in the scientific books. We are quite afraid that it may be doing something harmful to the environment."

She also said that it might be good to set up a booth at public or community events and have scientists and experts to explain the new technology.

The Environmental Health Institute, under the National Environment Agency, is looking into setting up a research consortium for further studies into the use of Wolbachia.

An assessment will also be done on the impact of the use of such technology to suppress dengue, and this will be facilitated by independent consultants.

Following the session on Thursday, Dr Balakrishnan said in a post on his Facebook page that there is still much work to be done.

"We agreed on the need for a multi-pronged approach, including vector control, eradication of breeding sites, and protection of vulnerable people, public education and vaccination when the vaccines are proven to be safe.

"We will also have to conduct more trials, share data with the scientists and carefully consider interventions like Wolbachia to reduce the mosquito population."

The ministry will take into account the participants' views in its speech for the Committee of Supply debate, which will take place in March. During the session, the Singapore Parliament will discuss the estimated budgets of the ministries and their plans for the financial year.

About 25 people, including academics, doctors and community leaders, attended the session on Thursday. The consultation was the third in five sessions, to gather feedback from the public on various environmental issues.

- CNA/xk

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Malaysia: Dengue cases 65pc higher than last year

AZURA ABAS New Straits Times 28 Jan 15;

PUTRAJAYA: A total of 8,502 dengue cases were reported in the country for the first three weeks of this year compared to 5,141 cases for the same period last year, an increase of 65 per cent.

Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said he was worried this could be an indicator that the dengue situation this year could be far worse than last year.

"We urge everyone from the public to the medical practitioners to be vigilant by taking all the necessary measures to check the matter," he told reporters after a meeting to discuss on dengue today.

Dr Subramaniam also called on all medical practitioners in the private sector to treat all cases as dengue cases until they were proven otherwise.

This must be done, he added, because private clinics or hospitals had failed to detect 99 per cent of dengue cases of patients who came to seek treatment on their first visit.

Dengue cases take turn for the worse

KUALA LUMPUR: The number of dengue cases at Hospital Kuala Lumpur, the oldest and most-visited hospital in the country, has not only risen but become more severe.

Its internal medicine physician Dr Saiful Safuan Md Sani said there had been an increase of about 20% of dengue patients at the hospital.

Seven dengue patients with encephalitis had also been admitted in the past month, with four of them dying compared to an average of only one or two such cases a year.

“We do not know yet why patients are suffering a more severe dengue infection. They should seek treatment immediately if they suffer from vomiting, persistent abdominal pains, lethargy like being unable to get out of bed, and any bleeding,” he advised.

He said that since late 2013, HKL had between 80 and 100 dengue patients at any one time but in the past month, the number had shot up to 150 patients on some days, with an average increase of about 20%.

Since Monday, HKL has opened up two bigger wards for dengue patients, while the current wards were being used as spill-over cases from the bigger wards, he said.

“We are also adding a few canvas and trolley beds as back-up and should the need arise, we will put patients in general wards,” he added.

Dr Saiful said people must ensure that potential mosquito breeding places in their surroundings were cleaned up.

Health deputy director-general Datuk Dr S. Jeyaindran said the ministry had increased 55% of the capacity for beds in the past week for dengue patients, from 408 to 639.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said one factor for the spike in cases and deaths was the shift in the dominant dengue serotype, which occurred last August, from DEN-2 to DEN-1.

From Jan 1 to 24, the Health Ministry reported 8,502 dengue cases nationwide, an increase of 65% or 3,361 cases compared with the same period last year (5,141 cases).

Foreign workers make up one third of HKL dengue patients
The Star 30 Jan 15;

KUALA LUMPUR: Migrant workers seeking treatment at Hospital Kuala Lumpur in recent days made up one-third of the dengue patients at its wards.

Its internal medicine physician Dr Saiful Safuan Md Sani said the workers were mostly Indonesian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Nepalese.

“Whether locals or foreigners, the patients at HKL tend to come from crowded neighbourhoods,” he said.

The Malaysian Employers Fede­ration called on its members to provide proper housing for foreign workers and teach them good hygiene.

Its executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan said foreign workers should not be made to live in makeshift quarters with no proper facilities.

“If their workers are unhygienic, dengue could spread among them, affecting productivity and profits,” he reminded employers

There should also be better waste management at construction sites to prevent the spread of disease, he said.

“There are often piles of rubbish left at these sites which attract flies, while pools of stagnant water make it easy for mosquitoes to breed.

“Employers need to teach their workers about proper hygiene and how to look after their workplace and accomodations,” he added.

On Sunday, Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya said 3,000 new dengue cases were recorded nationwide in the past week, with 1,000 being in Selangor.

Selangor Mentri Besar Azmin Ali said the administration had been proactive in fighting the disease.

“We initiated the Terjah dan Musnah (Ambush and Destroy) anti-aedes campaign in areas with a high number of dengue cases,” he said after attending an event at the Tengku Ampuan Jemaah Mosque in Bukit Jelutong here.

Azmin said the problem should be addressed collectively by both the state and federal governments.

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Indonesia: Jokowi Folds Emissions Agency BP REDD+ Into Forestry Ministry

Basten Gokkon and Adelia Anjani Putri Jakarta Globe 29 Jan 15;

Jakarta. President Joko Widodo has disbanded Indonesia’s BP REDD+ agency, which was established in 2013 to help the country meet greenhouse gas emission targets from deforestation, and merged it with Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

The decision, which was issued via Presidential Decree No. 16/2015 issued on Jan. 23, will see the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Management Body, as well as the National Council on Climate Change, folded into the ministry.

Both agencies are peak government bodies whose role is crucial to halting Indonesia’s rapid deforestation rates and mitigating climate change.

“The task and function of reducing greenhouse emissions conducted by BP REDD+ as stated in Presidential Decree No. 62/2003 now will be integrated as the ministry’s task and function,” Article 59 of the decree said.

There was no elaboration on the technical arrangements, but the decree said that the authority would be given to minister Siti Nurbaya.

BP REDD+ was founded in 2013 by then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as part of Indonesia’s $1 billion REDD deal with Norway.

In 2009, Indonesia pledged to cut deforestation rates — which are estimated to be some of the fastest in the world — by up to 41 percent by 2020. A year later Indonesia signed a letter of intent with Norway, which outlined Indonesia’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation of peatland, in exchange for payments of up to $1 billion from Norway.

BP REDD took over from the REDD+ Task Force, which was established in 2010, and has since worked on Indonesia’s REDD+ planning, including projects such as the One Map initiative — a centralized forestry map, which is aimed resolving conflicting land claims that have hampered emissions reductions targets.

The decision to disband the agency has met a mixed response from some within Indonesia, but Norway’s ambassador to Indonesia Stig Traavik took a cautious tone when contacted on Thursday.

He said it was natural for a new government to want to “manage things their own way” and Norway was open to some changes.

When asked whether he thought Joko was serious about Indonesia’s environmental pledge, he replied the two countries had a long partnership on climate issues and he was confident things would progress.

“We have heard about the decision but not in detail. The main thing now is how to reach the goal together,” Traavik said.

Abetnego Tarigan, executive director at the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, said for certain issues the merger could be positive.

“The previous president formed BP REDD+ with the help of the Norwegian embassy as a debottlenecking attempt in the efforts of solving environmental issues in Indonesia,” he said.

“However, the problems have been that the ministries were not working well because they couldn’t work hand in hand.”

Abetnego said what was important was whether efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions were effective.

“If merging BP REDD+ was an attempt to kill it all … I think that would be a colossal mistake,” he said.

“With the merger, the assumption is that there wouldn’t be any difficulties in solving environmental issues, as the ministry is a big institution and also has regional units in many areas.”

William Sabandar, former deputy of operations at BP REDD+, was less affirmative about the decision.

“This is how I see it as a former deputy of BP REDD+. What’s certain is that the presidential decree violates the agreement between the Indonesian government with the Norwegian government which is stated in the Letter of Intent in 2010.”

He said it was sad to see that the merger had not been considered thoroughly in terms of its local, national and international effects.

“The international dimension would be how they would consider Indonesia’s important role in the global climate change movement.

“The national dimension is how serious we are in boosting the country’s forest and land management across the archipelago.

“The local dimension is the BP REDD+’s role in involving the society and boosting welfare.”

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Most of Hawaii's coral recover from mass bleaching

AUDREY McAVOY Associated Press Yahoo News 29 Jan 15;

HONOLULU (AP) — Coral rely on algae for food and their survival.

So when the stress of warmer-than-average ocean temperatures prompted many of Hawaii's corals to expel algae last year — a phenomenon called bleaching because coral lose their color when they do this — many were worried they might die.

Now the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources says most of the bleached corals have recovered. It plans to announce the result of its coral surveys on Thursday.

Even so, scientists say the experience weakened the coral, making them more likely to get sick. It's also going to be harder for them to withstand warm temperatures in the future.

The incident is a blow to the state's fragile reefs, which are already under pressure from runoff from development, overfishing and recreational use of the ocean.

Coral reefs are a critical part of the ecosystem, and their health is vital to the ocean environment. Coral cover just one-tenth of the ocean floor but are home to 25 percent of known marine species. Some fish eat coral, others hide from predators in them. Some species use coral as nursery grounds. Some types of shark will frequent coral reefs.

Mark Eakin, the coordinator the Coral Reef Watch program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said coral bleaching demonstrates that "climate change isn't something of the distant future."

Kaneohe Bay on Oahu's east side suffered the most serious bleaching in the state, which is home to 15 percent of all coral under U.S. jurisdiction. Seventy-five percent of the dominant coral species there lost some color or turned completely white.

Subsequent studies after waters cooled showed 12 percent of the bay's bleached coral died, said Anne Rosinski, a marine resource specialist with the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

The remainder regained some color and have been recovering. The coral were weakened to begin with after being covered by runoff from flooding. Then after the bleaching, a boat propeller destroyed some of the coral, she said.

Most bleached corals off Maui and Kauai have also recovered.

The state is trying to do what it can to eliminate other stresses on the coral so they'll be in better shape to survive warmer temperatures, Rosinski said.

"I just worry how much the corals can take," she said.

There's even bleaker news expected from an isolated atoll about 1,000 miles northwest of Honolulu.

Lisianski Island, which is part of a national marine preserve, suffered months of warmer-than-normal waters over the summer. Researchers visiting in the fall observed some bleaching, but the area is so remote scientists haven't been able to return to check on them since even though temperatures were high there for weeks afterward.

"We're expecting when they go back there's going to be a lot of dead coral," Eakin said.

Eakin recalled diving on a reef in Thailand after most of the coral there died after a 2010 mass bleaching event. He said the fish were hanging out in the water not knowing what to do.

"Severe bleaching events are like a blight that goes through and kills all the trees in the forest," he said.

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World's cities experiencing more heatwaves, study shows

Number of extremely hot days a year has increased in hundreds of cities since the 1970s years, with frequencies peaking in the last five years
John Vidal The Guardian 30 Jan 15;

World cities are experiencing more heatwaves and fewer cold spells, according to a study of extreme temperatures in hundreds of urban areas over the past 40 years. It found that many cities are seeing fewer extremely windy days than in the 1970s and have more extremely hot individual days and nights.

The climate researchers from US and Indian universities identified 620 of the world’s urban areas with a population over 250,000 and then chose 217 which were situated close to an international weather station with rainfall, wind and temperature records stretching back to 1973.

They found that four of the five years with the most heatwaves had occurred since 2009. They were experienced mostly in Africa, East Asia, Europe and North America.

“The number of extremely hot days increased significantly at most sites [over the 40 years]. However, a few urban areas in East Asia showed significant declining trends. Only 2% of the urban areas experienced significant declines in the frequency of extreme hot days,” said the authors.

“Extremely windy days declined substantially during the last 40 years with significant declines in about 60% in the urban areas,” said the authors, who defined heatwaves as periods of at least six days where the daily maximum temperature was hotter than 99% of days since 1973.

The results, published in Environmental Research Letters, also showed a significant decline in six-day or longer cold spells. Around 17% of urban areas were found to have experienced a significant increase in daily rainfall and 10% experienced a significant increase in annual maximum precipitation.

“Our results show significant increases in heat waves and the number of hot days and warm nights, and at the same time declines in cold waves and extreme windy days in many urban areas over the last 40 years. We also find that the number of changes in precipitation extremes was modest, which is somewhat surprising as our previous work showed a predominance of increases in precipitation extremes in major US urban areas,” said lead research author Vimal Mishra from the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar.

“Urban areas make up a relatively small part of the global land area; but they are the centre of wealth, so damage to urban infrastructure could result in potentially large economic losses,” he said.

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